GREEN COVE SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — A helicopter carrying three people to pick up a heart for transplant struck several trees as it crashed to the ground in north Florida, but the pilot made no distress call, according to a preliminary investigation.
The Dec. 26 crash killed a St. Augustine veteran pilot and a heart surgeon and a procurement technician from the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. They were flying to a Gainesville hospital to pick up a heart for a transplant in Jacksonville.
According to the preliminary report the National Transportation Safety Board posted late Tuesday, the helicopter took off from the Mayo Clinic at 5:37 a.m.
No flight plan was filed. The last communication from the helicopter came at 5:49 a.m. when the pilot, E. Hoke Smith of SK Jets, contacted the air traffic control tower at Jacksonville International Airport to inquire about the status of restricted airspace. Air traffic controllers told Smith the restricted areas were inactive, and Smith acknowledged their reply, investigators said.
The helicopter, a Bell 206B, was last recorded on radar at 5:53 a.m. at an altitude of 300 feet and about a mile north of the Clay County crash site, investigators said.
The helicopter crashed at 5:54 a.m. in a remote wooded area about 12 miles northeast of the Palatka Municipal Airport in overcast, somewhat misty conditions, according to the report.
Mayo Clinic staff alerted authorities that the team was overdue and a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office aircraft spotted the wreckage about four hours later.
Several trees that were severed by breaks at descending altitudes marked the start of the debris field, investigators said. The first tree strike was at an estimated height of 30 feet above the ground, which severed a roughly 50-foot tree at a ground elevation of 118 feet, according to the report.
The crash ignited a fire that burned about 10 acres of woods and investigators said most of the wreckage was consumed by the fire.
The NTSB investigation into what caused the crash may take up to a year and a half to complete.
The crash killed Smith, 68, a Vietnam combat veteran, and two Mayo Clinic staff: surgeon Luis Bonilla, 49, and technician David Hines, 57. Bonilla had transferred in November to the Jacksonville hospital from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
The patient who had been waiting for the heart was put back on the transplant waiting list.
A message left Wednesday for Smith's son, who is the general manager of SK Jets, was not immediately returned.
The Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville has had a contract with SK Jets since 2006 for organ transplant retrieval and recovery transportation services, spokesman Kevin Punsky said.
Such flights sometimes have to be coordinated quickly because of the sporadic nature of organ availability and the short window of time that organs remain viable for transplant, he said. He declined further comment on the crash or the NTSB report because of the ongoing investigation.