A Florida Keys pilot who was delivering supplies to Haiti was killed in a helicopter crash Thursday night, according to acquaintances and published media reports.
John Ward, 43, co-owned the now-defunct Key West Fish Cutters restaurant and a helicopter sightseeing business at Sugarloaf Airport, friends said Friday.
Ward was returning from Haiti when he crashed a R44 II helicopter into a mountain in the western Dominican Republic province of Dajabon, according to published reports.
Ward was living in Fort Myers but maintained a home in the Keys, where he had lived for about 20 years, friends said. The home is on Cudjoe Key, according to property records.
"He was a really nice guy. He really tried to make a go of the restaurant," said Florida Keys commercial fisherman Don DeMaria. "He was one of the good guys. The shame is it seemed like he was over there just trying to help."
Kenny Wells, formerly of Summerland Key, said he lost a friend, a mentor and a "guardian angel." The 23-year-old American Eagle pilot was in Dallas in flight school when he heard the news.
"I met John when I was 12 years old," Wells said. "I saved one of his boats from sinking and he never forgot that. So when I was 15 he asked if I wanted to wash and wax his plane. I said sure and he offered to pay for flight training, gas and the use of his plane if I wanted to learn how to fly."
So began a long friendship between the two, Wells said.
"He was always there for me, at every step in my flight career John helped me," Wells said. "When I was getting my (pilot's) license I was concerned that I hadn't heard from the tower and this voice comes over the radio saying, 'Don't worry, you're doing fine.' It was John. He called me on the radio."
The two shared many adventures and not all in the sky.
"We both had a near-death experience on the Seven Mile Bridge when a car swerved and almost hit us," Wells said. "There's so many stories. I can't remember them all."
In June 2005, Ward also escaped injury when the nose gear of the 1972 Beechcraft Bonaza single engine airplane he was landing at the Summerland Key Cove Airport collapsed.
Another Keys pilot, Jorge Newbery, recalled Ward as a guy who would help anyone in need. "When the situation in Haiti happened, I told John, 'You don't need to go, there's plenty of military people there,'" Newbery said. "He told me the Lord told him he had to help. John was a big believer in God and the Bible. That's how he lived. We're all just shocked tonight. All the pilots in the Keys that knew John are really hurting tonight."
Sugarloaf Airport Manager and pilot Dan Haggerty recalled Ward similarly. Ward occasionally kept his helicopter at Sugarloaf Airport over the years, he said.
"We're talking about a really big-hearted guy," Haggerty said. "Everybody like him. He was always out there helping somebody -- just the guy he was."