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Former Santa Rosa woman was pilot killed in Ohio helicopter crash

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Jennifer Topper found her first passion fresh out of Piner High School in 2002, when she joined the U.S. Navy and worked her way into a specialty job as a rescue swimmer, flying over the ocean in a military chopper and dropping into the water on a long line for search and rescue operations.

She was one of few women in the role, and she told her cousin it just made her work harder.

But she loved it, and it sparked her desire to become a helicopter pilot, the passion she would pursue next, said Topper’s mother, Cherie Rader, of Santa Rosa.

On Tuesday, the freedom and thrill that came with flying turned to tragedy when a medical transport aircraft piloted by the former Santa Rosa woman crashed over southeast Ohio, killing all three crew members on board.

“I was so proud of my daughter,” Rader said from the Sonoma County airport on Wednesday where she prepared to board a flight to Ohio with two relatives.

“She was an awesome pilot,” Rader said. “Heart attack victims. Gunshot victims. She saved many a life up there in Ohio.”

Topper, 34, was flying a Bell 407 helicopter with two flight nurses on board in frigid, snowy conditions en route from suburban Columbus to a small town about 100 miles away, where they were going to pick up a patient when the aircraft went down about three-quarters of the way to their destination, authorities said.

The other two victims have been identified as flight nurses Bradley J. Haynes, 48, of London, Ohio, and Rachel L. Cunningham, 33, of Galloway. The cause of the crash was unknown Wednesday and remains under investigation.

Authorities said Survival Flight Inc., which employed Topper and operated the medical transport helicopter in partnership with Mount Carmel Health System, notified the Ohio State Highway Patrol around 7:20 a.m. Tuesday that it had lost contact with the aircraft, authorities said.

State troopers’ special response team and aviation unit began searching for the wreckage and finally located it around 10:16 a.m., reportedly pinging one of the crew members’ cellphones.

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, Peter Knudson, said Wednesday the debris from the crash was “highly fragmented” and scattered over about a quarter-mile of thick woods and rugged landscape but that there had been no post-crash fire, so the aircraft wreckage was at least preserved.

He also said investigators had retrieved electronic instrumentation and equipment from the crash site that would contain usable memory that could facilitate the inquiry.

Investigators were working with the insurance companies on recovery of the aircraft wreckage, Knudson said.

“The challenge is the weather right now is really crazy cold and windy,” he said. “That’s really an X factor that could affect the recovery time.”

The investigation was expected to take 12 to 24 months, in any case, though a preliminary report likely would be out in a few weeks, Knudson said.

Rader said she looked forward one day to having more answers, but knew at least that her daughter died “trying to save somebody’s life.”

“I loved her,” Rader said. “She was my rock. She was my best friend.”

She said Topper had moved to Ohio about 1½ years ago with her boyfriend, Heath Beecher, also a helicopter pilot, after they met in the Grand Canyon where both flew tours. They initially worked for Survival Flight in Oklahoma and then found jobs flying for Mount Carmel Health.

They lived in Sunbury, a suburb north of Columbus, had a new puppy and were saving to buy a house, said Topper’s cousin, Jenna Brown.

“She had finally met the man of her dreams,” Brown said. “She was the absolute happiest I’ve ever seen her.”

Topper grew up in Santa Rosa, one of two siblings raised by her mother and late father, Daniel Topper. She attended Santa Rosa schools and was outgoing and adventurous, said her cousin, who described Topper as more sister than cousin.

Brown said Topper was a strong and “solid” woman who brought life into any room. “It was rare you didn’t catch Jen with a smile,” she said.

“She was an absolute go-getter, and if you told her she couldn’t do it, she would make sure she would go do it, and that was from jobs to any adventure,” Brown said. “There was nothing that could stop her, to be honest.”

Topper was on the swim team in school and was competitive in equestrian events, and was very physical and active, but then could get all dressed up and be dazzling.

When she decided to join the Navy in the aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks, she was still just 17, but she talked to a recruiter on her own and took the papers to her mother, Rader said.

“She was just wise beyond her years,” she said. ”We’re just devastated.”

Topper spent about 1½ years in the Navy, but had to cut her service short because of a profound tragedy that struck at home.

In 2004, Topper’s older brother, Christopher, then 23, was suffering from mental health issues that included paranoia and delusions, when he fatally shot his stepfather, a retired sheriff’s deputy named Howard Rader, 61, and his aunt, Carolyn Day, 43. He also gravely wounded his mother, whom he shot six times before turning the gun on himself and taking his own life.

Topper, then 19, returned to Santa Rosa and made it her business to make sure her mother came through the ordeal, putting her own plans on hold for the time being, Brown said.

“She was the one that got her mom through that,” Brown said. “She was there every step of the way through that. She was just solid.”

Several years later, she earned her private pilot’s license and later her commercial license, training in Visalia and then Bend, Oregon, where she also worked as a flight instructor.

When she was ready, she took the job on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and began the next part of her journey with her boyfriend.

“She was living her dream,” Rader said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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