Financial pressures contributed to a helicopter pilot’s decision to continue flying through deteriorating weather before crashing in north Florida, killing a Mayo Clinic heart surgeon and technician on their way to retrieve a heart for transplant, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Neither the Bell 206 helicopter nor pilot E. Hoke Smith of SK Logistics in St. Augustine were experiencing any problems before the crash early in the morning on Dec. 26, 2011, according to the NTSB probable cause report, published late Monday.
However, the helicopter was not certified to handle the sporadically misty and overcast conditions between the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville and Shands at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
The board found that Smith’s decision to continue flying in the poor conditions resulted in the crash in a remote, wooded area in Clay County, killing all three men on board.
Smith did not make any backup plans for the organ transport. Other SK Logistic pilots told investigators that they would have made the same flight but would have arranged for ground transportation or a flight by a fixed-wing aircraft if they could not complete the mission as scheduled, according to the report.
“Contributing to the pilot’s improper decision was his self-induced pressure to complete the trip,” according to the report.
The helicopter had some equipment for navigation in bad weather, but it wasn’t certified to do so by the Federal Aviation Administration, said Bob Gretz, the senior NTSB investigator handling the crash.
“It was like pockets of good and bad weather all along the route,” Gretz said. “The board, they’re really not faulting him for initiating the flight. They’re faulting him for continuing in bad weather.”
Smith’s business had faltered in the recession, and the Mayo Clinic had begun looking at other companies to fly medical transport missions. The hospital’s preferred helicopter — the only one operated by SK Logistics that was certified to fly under instrument flight rules necessitated by the bad weather — had been grounded for four months while the company attempted to secure loans for engine maintenance, according to the NTSB report.
“Thus, the pilot would have been highly motivated to complete trips as requested so that he could demonstrate the reliability of his service,” the board said.
Smith was a decorated veteran of combat missions in Vietnam and routinely flew medical transport flights for the company he founded in 1997, his son has said. In bankruptcy proceedings after the crash, SK Logistics listed $1.3 million in assets and more than $8.9 million in debt.
“Hoke continued to operate the company, however, and continued to put over $1 million of his own funds into the company because he had such a passion for flying and for his missions of delivering organs to patients. The accident was a real tragedy and the family was devastated,” said Nina LaFleur, the attorney who represented SK Logistics in the bankruptcy proceedings.
The crash also killed heart surgeon Dr. Luis Bonilla and procurement technician David Hines.
“We will always remember the selfless and intense dedication they brought each day to making a difference in the lives of our patients,” said Dr. William Rupp, CEO of the Mayo Clinic in Florida. He deferred questions about the report to the NTSB.