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Pilot in Mayo Clinic copter crash had spent life flying, son says

December 27, 2011 |  1:15 pm

Scene of helicopter crashE. Hoke Smith was just 16 when he was introduced to what became one of the activities that defined the following half-century of his life and, tragically, led to his death: flying.

“Things were easier back then and you could get flying lessons,” Smith’s son, Derrick, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “He always loved flying.” That love took Smith through the Vietnam War, during which he rose to the rank of captain and earned military honors including the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross. It also led Smith to start a flying company, SK Jets of St. Augustine, Fla.

On Monday, Smith, 68, was piloting his Bell 206 helicopter, carrying a heart transplant team from St. Augustine to Gainesville, Fla., when the craft crashed and burned in a heavily wooded area. In addition to Smith, the dead included heart surgeon Dr. Luis Bonilla and procurement technician David Hines of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville.

The three were traveling to Shands Hospital at the University of Florida to pick up a heart for transplant. The cause of the crash is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Hoke Smith routinely flew the same flight for years; “indeed that’s how the company was founded,” his son said.

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

Because of the poor economy, which has hurt the charter business, the Mayo flights now constitute as much as 70% of the company’s business, Smith said. The safety issues remain the same even though the company is transporting live organs.

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

But this wasn't simply Christmas season in the Smith home, his son said. The crash came days after Smith celebrated another half-century milestone: his wedding anniversary.

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-- Michael Muskal

Photo: A Clay County fire official drives through smoldering brush on his way to wreckage from a helicopter crash in an area west of Green Cove Springs, Fla., Monday afternoon. Credit: Kelly Jordan / Florida Times-Union

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