- Associated Press - Monday, December 26, 2011

PALATKA, Fla. — A heart surgeon from the Mayo Clinic in Florida flying across the northern corner of the state to retrieve a heart for transplant was killed Monday when his helicopter crashed, officials said.

The helicopter departed the clinic in Jacksonville about 5:45 a.m. but never arrived at Sands Hospital, at the University of Florida in Gainesville, about 60 miles southwest, said Kathy Barbour, a spokeswoman for Mayo, which is based in Rochester, Minn.

Heart surgeon Dr. Luis Bonilla, procurement technician David Hines and the pilot were killed.

They were on their way to pick up a heart for a patient at the Jacksonville hospital, Mayo Clinic spokesman Karl Oestreich told the Associated Press. He said he didn’t know whether the heart could still be used in a transplant or what would happen to the patient who had been scheduled to receive it.

The helicopter went down about 12 miles northeast of Palatka, said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. The town is about 40 miles east of Gainesville and about 45 miles south of Jacksonville.

Clay County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher Myron White confirmed the three dead but had no more information to release about the crash in the remote, forested area away from roads. The National Transportation Safety Board also was investigating.

The National Weather Service in Jacksonville reported that there was light fog with overcast conditions in the area but no rain.

“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 officer, said in a statement. “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.”

FAA records show the Bell 206 helicopter is operated by SK Jets.

The St. Augustine company released a statement Monday evening: “The focus of our efforts at this time is to attend to the needs of our passengers, crew and their families and work with the NTSB and local public safety officials to determine the cause and extent of the accident.”

Gary Robb, a Kansas City aviation attorney specializing in helicopter safety, said SK is known as a careful and safe operator in the industry.

The Bell 206 helicopter is a small, lightweight aircraft that has low weight and speed capabilities, and it’s primarily used by traffic reporters or police departments, Mr. Robb said.

“It’s not usually used in donor flights,” he said.

“If you’re on a mission where time is sensitive, why use an engine that is low performance?” Mr. Robb said, adding that the helicopter has a cramped cabin.

An NTSB investigator will scour the crash site for clues and look into the pilot’s experience and any factors that might have impaired the pilot, or any environmental or mechanical problems, he said.

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