TRENTON, N.J – The helicopter pilot killed in last weekend's mid-air collision above the Hudson River routinely flew tourists and VIPs around the Manhattan skyline.
But those who knew Jeremy Clarke said the 32-year-old from New Zealand was more likely to talk about his wedding plans or about recently becoming a U.S. citizen than the celebrities and public figures who often sat beside him in the cockpit.
Some took notice of him, though.
"He seemed like a very nice guy and a great pilot," said five-time Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, who recognized Clarke as the pilot who flew her and her 3-year-old daughter on a sightseeing tour of Manhattan two days before Clarke's helicopter collided with a small plane over the Hudson River.
Five Italian tourists were aboard Clarke's helicopter when it crashed Saturday. Two men and a boy from a Pennsylvania family were in a single-engine Piper when the aircraft collided and plummeted to the water below the congested flyway. All nine people died.
Ernie Keil, a close family friend who knew Clarke since birth, said the pilot was a consummate professional who would only occasionally mentioned some of the VIPs he ferried, such as the road crew for pop star Beyonce, or talk show host Geraldo Rivera.
"He used to fly him quite a bit," Keil said of Rivera, recalling a story Clarke told recently: "There was a thunderstorm, and they had to land until it blew over, and they spent some time together just talking."
By all accounts, Clarke was an excellent pilot.
According to Liberty Tours in New York, where he worked for the past year and a half, Clarke logged 3,100 hours flying helicopters — including 850 in the Eurocopter he was piloting Saturday.
He received his license in 2004 in California, and worked for Los Angeles Helicopters from 2005 to 2007 as a pilot and instructor.
"He was an excellent instructor. He didn't let you be scared of anything as far as the maneuvers," said Los Angeles Helicopters general manager Kim Orahoske, who trained under Clarke.
Born in New Zealand, Clarke moved to California around 2000. For a while, he worked as a greenskeeper at the Beverly Hills Country Club.
"But he always wanted to be a helicopter pilot," Keil said. "That's when he decided to go to school for it."
He moved to New Jersey in 2007 and was living in Lanoka Harbor with his fiancee, 29-year-old Danielle Granahan, who works for Jet Blue. The couple had planned to wed next August, Keil said.
Happy with his career, Clarke told Keil he was ready to move on to the next phase of his life during a trip to Arizona a month ago. He was looking to buy a home in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale.
"He was ready to make a move, and settle down and raise a family," Keil said. "The reason he came out was to visit me and do a little house shopping."
Keil said Clarke also wanted to be closer to family members in California. His parents and sister still live in New Zealand. They arrived in New Jersey on Sunday.
"His love of flying walked hand-in-hand with his dedication as a professional, winning the respect and admiration of his peers within the commercial aviation industry," Clarke's family said in a written statement released Tuesday.
"It is the great hope of this family that through this tragedy lessons will be learned, and new regulatory provisions within the aviation industry will emerge that will prevent future loss of life to our loved ones and the loved ones of others."