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Helicopter that crashed in Florida gave no distress signal

The flight of medical mercy that abruptly turned tragic this week, killing an organ transplant team, began as a routine flight, say federal investigators probing the crash.

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

“It looked like a normal flight,” Obregon said.

The destruction from the resulting fire will make determining the cause of the crash especially difficult, Obregon told reporters. He estimated that only 10% to 15% of the aircraft remained. A preliminary report is expected within five to seven days, and a final report could take 18 months.

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The helicopter, owned by SK Jets, was en route from St. Augustine, Fla., to Gainesville when it crashed in a densely wooded area early Monday. 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, said in a statement.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families.” he added.

The third victim was the pilot, E. Hoke Smith, the founder and president of SK Jets.

In an interview Tuesday, his son said Smith was just 16 when he was introduced to flying, the activity that would help define the next half-century of his life and, tragically, his death.

“Things were easier back then and you could get flying lessons,” Smith’s son, Derrick, said. “He always loved flying.” That love took Smith through the Vietnam War, during which he rose to the rank of captain and won military honors including the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.

When he returned from Vietnam, Smith had other jobs but continued flying.

Ultimately, he was contacted by doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Florida who were seeking a transportation lifeline for transplants, and he started what became SK Jets, a luxury jet and helicopter charter service. The younger Smith, a lawyer, serves as general manager.

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Though the company employs 12 pilots, Hoke Smith often flew on holidays so they could be with their families, his son said.

But it was more than the Christmas season in the Smith home, his son said. The crash also came days after Smith celebrated another half-century milestone — his 50th wedding anniversary.

michael.muskal@latimes.com


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