NEW YORK – The man at the helm of a private helicopter that crashed into the East River on Tuesday, killing one passenger and injuring three others, was an experienced commercial pilot who owns a company that manages a local airport.
Investigators are still trying to determine why the helicopter went down shortly after takeoff from a riverbank heliport.
Emergency crews arrived within seconds of the crash to find the helicopter upside-down in the murky water with just its skids showing on the surface. The pilot, Paul Dudley, and three passengers were bobbing, and witnesses reported a man diving down, possibly in an attempt to rescue the remaining passenger.
New York Police Department divers pulled Sonia Marra, 40, from the water about 90 minutes after the Bell 206 Jet Ranger went down at around 3:30 p.m. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Meanwhile, a portrait emerged of the pilot as an expert flier who once landed a plane in a field near Coney Island after its engine failed. Dudley owns Linden Airport Services, the company that manages the Linden, N.J., municipal airport under a 20-year contract with the city, Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka said.
"He's an accomplished pilot," Gerbounka said.
Pilot Owen Kanzler, who said he has known Dudley for at least 20 years, said he saw Dudley's helicopter take off from the airport around 3 p.m. Flight conditions were calm, he said, with fair weather clouds above the altitude where Dudley would have been flying.
"As long as I've known Paul, he's owned and flown helicopters," he said. "He's a nice, outgoing man who does a fine job running the airport."
The passengers were friends of Dudley's family and were visiting New York to celebrate the birthdays of Marra and her stepfather Paul Nicholson, 71. He was on the chopper along with his wife Harriet, 60; and a friend of Marra's, Helen Tamaki, 43. The Nicholsons are British but live in Portugal; Marra and Tamaki, a citizen of New Zealand, lived in Sydney, Australia. The group had planned to do some sightseeing and then go to dinner in Linden, police said.
The pilot's wife, Sunhe Dudley, told The Associated Press that she had spoken to her husband briefly after the crash.
"These were actually very dear friends of ours that were in the helicopter," she said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Dudley apparently reported problems in the helicopter and tried to turn around but instead crashed into the water.
The National Transportation Safety Board was on the scene Tuesday, and crews pulled the wreckage from the water about four hours after it went down. The chopper was taken to the police department's Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. The airport in Linden, about 17 miles from the 34th Street heliport, was locked down briefly pending the arrival of Federal Aviation Administration and NTSB investigators.
The crash triggered a massive rescue effort, with a dozen boats and divers going down into the cold, gray water. Police officers doing a counterterrorism drill nearby jumped into the water wearing their uniforms, and without any rescue equipment they pulled the passengers to shore. Fire department rescue paramedics revived Harriet Nicholson and Tamaki, who were in critical condition; Paul Nicholson was stable. All were hospitalized. Dudley swam to shore and was uninjured.
"The pilot did indicate that there was somebody still in the helicopter," Lt. Larry Serras said. "By the time we swam to the helicopter it was completely submerged."
Officer Jason Gregory, one of the divers who brought Marra's body to the surface, said the helicopter was upside down in the sediment. He said she was in the back seat and wasn't buckled in by any seat belt.
The Linden airport is a popular base and refueling stop for helicopters and private planes operating in New York. Charter companies, news helicopter and private pilots use the airport.
In November 2006, Dudley landed a Cessna 172 light plane in a park near Coney Island in Brooklyn after the engine failed. No one was hurt during the emergency landing, and the plane was taken back to Linden after mechanics removed the wings.
The Bell 206 Jet Ranger is one of the world's most popular helicopter models and was first flown in January 1966. They are light and highly maneuverable, making them popular with television stations and air taxi companies. A new one costs between $700,000 and $1.2 million.
The East River has been particularly tricky for pilots because of its many bridges and its proximity to LaGuardia, one of the nation's busiest airports. In 2006, New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle died when the Cirrus light plane he was flying crashed into a residential building while trying to make a turn over the river.
In January 2009, an Airbus 320 airliner landed in the Hudson after hitting birds and losing both engines shortly after taking off from LaGuardia. The flight, U.S. Airways Flight 1549, became known as the Miracle on the Hudson plane.
But later that year, another crash had a much darker ending: a small plane collided with a helicopter over the Hudson River, on the other side of Manhattan, killing nine people, including five Italian tourists. A government safety panel found that an air traffic controller who was on a personal phone call had contributed to the accident.
The FAA changed its rules for aircraft flying over New York City's rivers after that collision. Pilots must call out their positions on the radio and obey a 161 mph speed limit. Before the changes, such radio calls were optional.
Dudley filed a lawsuit against a proposed heliport in Kearny, N.J., after that deadly collision, citing safety concerns. He argued that additional planes flying over Jersey City, N.J., on their way to New York would create dangerous air traffic, the Newark Star-Ledger reported at the time.
Witnesses said Tuesday's crash happened quickly, with the plane sputtering and appearing to be in some type of mechanical distress. Carlos Acevedo, of Puerto Rico, was with his wife at a nearby park area when they saw the helicopter go down.
"It sank fast," he said. "In seconds. Like the water was sucking it in."