Fatal flight of heart transplant team began normally, NTSB says

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What began as a flight of medical mercy turned into a tragedy without warning, according to federal investigators probing the recent Florida crash of a helicopter carrying a heart transplant team.

Speaking at a news conference, Jose Obergon, the chief investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said Tuesday there was no distress signal or other warning before the Bell 206 helicopter crashed and burned Monday in a wooded area about 12 miles northeast of Palatka, Fla., killing all three people aboard.


‘It looked like a normal flight,’ Obergon said.

The destruction from the fire will make determining the cause of the crash more difficult, Obergon told reporters. He estimated that that only 10% to 15% of the aircraft remains, so there is little with which to work.

A preliminary report is expected within five to seven days, and a final report could take 18 months.

The helicopter, owned by SK Jets was en route from St. Augustine to Gainesville when it crashed early Monday morning. It carried heart surgeon Dr. Luis Bonilla and procurement technician David Hines of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville; they were traveling to Shands Hospital at the University of Florida to procure a heart for transplant, according to the clinic.

‘As we mourn this tragic event, we will remember the selfless and intense dedication they brought to making a difference in the lives of our patients,’ John Noseworthy, Mayo Clinic president and chief executive officer, said in a prepared statement. ‘We recognize the commitment transplant teams make every day in helping patients at Mayo Clinic and beyond. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families.’

The helicopter went down near 5300 Hogarth Rd., according to an email description of the event from the Clay County Sheriff’s Office. The site is about a mile off a dirt road in a densely wooded area where about 10 acres were burned. The wreckage was discovered around noon Monday, according to the sheriff’s office.

The third victim was the pilot, E. Hoke Smith, identified on SK Jets’ website as the owner and president.



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