St Augustine pilot killed in morning crash

St Augustine pilot Hoke Smith and his two passengers, a heart surgeon and a transplant technician from Mayo Clinic, were killed early this morning when the helicopter they were flying crashed into the woods in southern Clay County.

Adding to this morning’s tragedy, just three days ago, Smith and his wife Gayle celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They are parents of one son, Derrick Smith, Green Cove Springs, and have one grandchild, Chloe Smith Lopez.

The Smiths are co-owners of SK Jets at the Northeast Florida Regional Airport in St Augustine — the operator of the downed Bell helicopter. Hoke founded the company in 1997 with one helicopter — the company has grown to 40 employees and operates a fleet of seven jets and two helicopters.

Smith was a highly decorated Vietnam pilot with commendations that include The Bronze Star, The Purple Heart, and The Distinguished Flying Cross.

Mayo Clinic identified the two employees killed as Dr. Luis Bonilla and technician David Hines. The team was sent to Shands Medical Center in Gainesville to retrieve a heart and other organs for transplant patients located in Jacksonville.

“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,” said Mayo Clinic President and Chief Executive Officer John Noseworthy in a televised press conference today. “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 Florida Highway Patrol led the investigation this morning — emergency personnel in surrounding counties were searching for signs of the aircraft. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office sent one of its helicopters to assist with the search. As early as 12:15 p.m., Historic City News was informed by the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office that they were calling off further efforts.

A Clay County deputy in a helicopter spotted wreckage in woods off Hogarth and Dynamite roads, southwest of Green Cove Springs.

Deputies, who used ATVs to reach the site and confirm that there were no survivors, said you could see where the rotors chopped down trees as it descended.

“The wreckage was probably a mile back in the woods,” said Clay County Lt. Russ Burk. “It’s another four miles to before you get to another road, so it’s way back in the woods in the middle of nothing.”

Officers who had been to the scene said the helicopter broke into pieces upon impact.

A small woods fire started by the crash was quickly contained, but the site remained shrouded in smoke in the late afternoon.

National Transportation Safety Board will have a team from Miami at the crash site Monday evening to take charge of the investigation.

Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News contributed photograph by SK Jets

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