Former Santa Rosa woman was pilot killed in Ohio helicopter crash
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.”