Man's plunge from chopper deemed suicide

A family member on Wednesday described the man who authorities said jumped from a helicopter mid-flight as a smart and very private person who suffered from health problems near the end of his life.

Officials have said they are treating the Tuesday death of Gregory McFadden, 61, as a suicide.

McFadden suffered for many years from a medical problem that made it hard for him to sleep well or eat properly, said one of McFadden's three brothers, Bradley, a West Covina lawyer and the city's former mayor with whom he lived for five years.

A flap in his esophagus did not function properly, and the issue remained unsolved at the time of his death because he could not find a way to get the necessary treatment using his Social Security benefits, his brother said.

"He had a medical problem that people didn't understand. They didn't think it was serious because it was very rare," said Bradley, who could not recall the specific diagnosis. "I think the lesson learned here is that we need to pay attention to the people who are seriously ill."

At 5 foot 11 inches, McFadden weighed about 125 pounds when he moved from his brother's home in 2011, his brother estimated. Property records indicate only that he maintained a post office box in his hometown of West Covina, but his brother believed him to be renting a room in Orange County, where he used to enjoy surfing.

McFadden, whom his brother described as very smart with a mathematical mind and a private person who was not very sociable, tried to write movie scripts after he graduated from USC. None sold, and he went on to hold a series of different jobs like being a travel agent or a teller at a hotel.

At the time of his death, his brother believed him to be unemployed, although the pair had not spoken in two years.

"All I can say is that he was a good guy," he said. "He was trying to get well and he couldn't."

Ric Webb and Patti Taylor, co-owners of OC Helicopters, said they encountered a man named Gregory McFadden the day before his death, and that he seemed "off."

McFadden, they said, had tried to book a 10-minute tour for noon Monday. He would be bringing one or two friends, he told Taylor.

When he arrived alone at the company's office near John Wayne Airport hours early for his flight, however, Webb said he got the sense that something was amiss.

"He never raised his voice — he was calm," Webb said. "But he just wasn't there."

Webb said he refused to take McFadden up. McFadden — thin, sallow-cheeked and clutching a torn shopping bag filled with papers — insisted, Webb said.

Taylor said McFadden called back repeatedly throughout the day, stressing that he might not have another opportunity to fly.

"The way he kept pushing," she said. "No amount of money is worth harming our pilots. God forbid we put him on a flight with someone else."

Webb added that in OC Helicopters' five years in business, he's never directly refused to take a passenger.

McFadden was able to schedule a tour with another company, one owned by Chuck Street, for Tuesday.

McFadden scheduled a private scenic tour for two, but he showed up at Fullerton Municipal Airport alone, said Street, a longtime helicopter pilot whose son was flying the chopper.

Street's son, Corbin, 25, took off with McFadden about 12:50 p.m. and planned to follow a typical tour route toward Irvine, over Pelican Hill and north along the coast, Street said. About 15 minutes later, dispatchers received reports that someone had fallen, said Newport Beach Police Department spokeswoman Jennifer Manzella.

During lunchtime on Tuesday, as a Ruby's Diner busboy cleaned up a table on the end of the Balboa Pier, he saw something he will likely never forget, the restaurant's general manager said.

A man, later identified as McFadden, plummeted in plain sight from a helicopter flying roughly 500 feet above the surf, just south of the pier.

Authorities believe McFadden jumped, his body appearing like a rag-doll or a dummy, according to patrons of Ruby's Diner on the pier.

Rescuers rushed to the scene, pulling an unconscious McFadden ashore to administer CPR. He died a short time later, just before 1:40 p.m. at Hoag Hospital, according to the Orange County Coroner's office.

Street — who has updated local radio listeners with traffic reports for more than 25 years — owns Cardinal Air Services, which offers tours in conjunction with Anaheim Helicopters. He said the incident shocked him.

"It's the last thing I ever thought would happen to my son," Street said. "I've been flying for 35 years, and I've logged over 27,000 hours, and it never happened to me."

Following the incident, the helicopter headed for JWA, where authorities interviewed the younger Street, according to airport spokeswoman Jenny Wedge.

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