A retired Xerox executive and amateur pilot rarely turned down a request to fly a wounded soldier to a hospital appointment or a beach vacation, so it fit his altruistic nature to ferry the brother of a terrorist bombing victim 300 miles to grieve with his parents.
But the flight added a tragic epilogue to the Uganda terrorism bombings when the single-engine plane crashed at its destination in North Carolina on Monday, killing the pilot and injuring the brother and another occupant.
Retired Xerox Corp. service manager Thomas F. Pitts, 65, of Wilmington, Del., often used his single-engine Cirrus SR20 for charity missions, including flying wounded soldiers to and from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, said longtime friend Kevin Reilly.
"He just thought it was his duty as a former Marine, and he had the skill set and he had the plane to get them there, and I just don't know — outside of bad weather — that he ever turned anybody down," Reilly said.
So when Pitts was asked Monday to help recent University of Delaware graduate Kyle Henn get from Delaware to his parents' home in Raleigh, N.C., Pitts agreed, Reilly said. The Henn family was reeling from the death Sunday of Kyle's older brother Nathan, a 25-year-old humanitarian worker among 76 people killed in a pair of terrorist bombings in Kampala, Uganda.
Pitts routinely made such flights, at no charge.
"He was trying to alleviate this brother having to book a commercial flight. He thought he could fly him to the family quicker," Reilly said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating Monday's crash, which occurred during a landing attempt at Horace Williams Airport in Chapel Hill. Randy Young, a spokesman for the University of North Carolina Department of Public Safety, told WRAL-TV it appeared the plane overshot the runway. Aerial views from television news helicopters showed the wreckage at the base of some trees along the runway.
Kyle Henn, 22, was in fair condition Tuesday at the North Carolina Medical Center in Chapel Hill. Co-pilot James Donahue was in critical condition, a hospital spokesman said.
The Henn family released a statement Tuesday, saying, "We are so grateful to both of the pilots for everything they did on our behalf and are both touched and broken by the events. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families."
Reilly, a former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker and special teams player, said he and Pitts met at Xerox in Wilmington, where Reilly was a marketing executive. He said they ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington together in 1999 and became involved after retirement in a program that sends wounded U.S. service members on weekend trips to Delaware and New Jersey beaches.
"He was just a super, super friend. I would say, if you had to sum him up, he was a man built for others. He thought of others first and he was the most fun-loving guy in the world," Reilly said.