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Authorities: Operator of Palm Beach County helicopter service piloted chopper in fatal crash

The Palm Beach Post logo The Palm Beach Post 7/7/2019 By Eliot Kleinberg, The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
a helicopter flying in the sky: A Secret Service agent aboard a helicopter with pilot Geoff Painter of Cloud 9 Helicopters helped drop 5,000 Easter eggs for the children to collect at NewSound Church in Wellington, Florida on March 31, 2018. It was thought President Donald Trump's Easter visit to Mar-a-Lago could scuttle NewSound Church's helicopter egg drops, but Painter stepped up and helped pull off the drops. [Allen Eyestone/palmbeachpost.com file photo] © Allen Eyestone/palmbeachpost.com file photo/The Palm Beach Post, Fla./TNS A Secret Service agent aboard a helicopter with pilot Geoff Painter of Cloud 9 Helicopters helped drop 5,000 Easter eggs for the children to collect at NewSound Church in Wellington, Florida on March 31, 2018. It was thought President Donald Trump's Easter visit to Mar-a-Lago could scuttle NewSound Church's helicopter egg drops, but Painter stepped up and helped pull off the drops. [Allen Eyestone/palmbeachpost.com file photo]

The operator of a Palm Beach Gardens helicopter service was piloting the multi-million-dollar chopper that crashed in the Bahamas on July 4, killing himself and six others, including coal billionaire and part-time northern Palm Beach County resident Christopher Cline, authorities said Saturday.

Geoffrey Painter, 52, and David Jude, 57, also killed in the crash, operated Cloud 9 Helicopters, based at the North County Airport, according to the company's web page and state corporate records.

Bahamian authorities initially had suggested Jude, a West Virginia and Juno Beach resident who is one of Cline's regular corporate pilots, was at the controls of the Agusta AW139 that dropped into shallow waters near Grand Cay, about 115 miles northeast of Palm Beach, and that the seventh person was an unidentified "Florida mechanic."

But on Saturday, the Royal Bahamas Police Force posted a list of all seven victims, and listed Painter as the pilot.

On Saturday, a man who identified himself as Painter's son said the family was "still dealing with this" and did not want to comment. No one answered the phone Friday or Saturday on Cloud 9 and there's no mention of the deaths of Painter and Jude on the company's web page or Facebook page or on Painter's Facebook page.

According to Painter's Linkedin professional page, the British national has had "nearly 13,000 accident and incident free helicopter flight hours and experience managing up to 16 aircraft, 10 pilots and 7500 flight hours per year."

A post about Painter's death that appeared on an alumni page of his high school in England called him a "conscientious student and member of the school rugby team who went on to join the RAF." Another post said, "He invited me down to Florida for a flight next time I was down there. He loved flying and was always sharing his experiences and jobs he was doing. Still in the prime of his life, such a very sad loss."

Painter made headlines in 2018 in Palm Beach County when he came to the rescue of an Easter egg drop in Wellington. He received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration and Secret Service to fly a copter for the event even though President Donald Trump was at his Palm Beach estate at the time. The FAA enacts temporary flight restrictions over the county when Trump visits Mar-a-Lago, limiting the types of aircraft allowed within 30 miles of Palm Beach International Airport.

The other four victims of the July 4 crash were Cline's daughter Kameron, 22; Brittney Searson, 21, her best friend and classmate both at The Benjamin School in Palm Beach Gardens and Louisiana State University, from which they graduated in May; Delaney Wykle, 23, a childhood friend of Kameron; and Jillian Clark, 22, another recent LSU graduate and a fellow sorority member of Kameron.

Friends have said Cline owns a private island just off Grand Cay, a small island settlement of about 400. His U.S.-registered helicopter had left Grand Cay at about 2 a.m., bound for Fort Lauderdale, and likely for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Bahamian aviation authorities have said. Just minutes later, it dropped into the Atlantic just a few miles offshore.

"It is too early to say what the causes and contributing factors of this accident might be," the Air Accident Investigation Department of the Bahamas said Friday night.

It said it had sent a salvage team to recover the helicopter and take it to Florida, "where the inspection and investigation will be carried out." It said it would be assisted by various agencies, including the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration; the helicopter is registered in the United States. NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss told The Palm Beach Post Saturday an NTSB investigator is awaiting word to head to the Bahamas.

a close up of a person: Geoffrey Painter in a photo posted on the Facebook page of Palm Beach County-based Cloud 9 Helicopters. Records show Cloud 9 is operated by Painter and David Jude. Both were killed July 4, 2019, in a helicopter crash in the Bahamas that also killed mining billionaire Christopher Cline, his daughter, and three other women. © Observer-Dispatch/The Palm Beach Post, Fla./TNS Geoffrey Painter in a photo posted on the Facebook page of Palm Beach County-based Cloud 9 Helicopters. Records show Cloud 9 is operated by Painter and David Jude. Both were killed July 4, 2019, in a helicopter crash in the Bahamas that also killed mining billionaire Christopher Cline, his daughter, and three other women.

Cline, worth nearly $2 billion, owned a oceanfront mansion in Seminole Landing, off U.S. 1 between PGA Boulevard and Donald Ross Road. It is one of three clustered parcels that property records list with a combined market value of $21.5 million. He also was a philanthropist who built orphanages in Haiti, donated $8.5 million to Marshall University and gave $5 million to West Virginia University. He also developed a sports center in his father's name in Beckley, the southern West Virginia city their family called home and where Chris will be interred.

His political activities included hosting a reception for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 and making a $1 million donation to President Donald Trump's 2017 inaugural committee.

My deepest sympathies go out to the family and friends of great businessman and energy expert Chris Cline, his wonderful daughter, Kameron, and their friends, on the tragic accident which took place in the Bahamas. The great people of West Virginia will never forget them!

-- Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)July 6, 2019

"My deepest sympathies go out to the family and friends of great businessman and energy expert Chris Cline, his wonderful daughter, Kameron, and their friends, on the tragic accident which took place in the Bahamas," President Trump posted Friday night on Twitter.

The Agusta s.p.a. Model AW139 was built in 2008 and its most current certificate was issued in 2017. Its maker's webpage calls the model the "best performer in the most challenging situations." Measuring 54 feet long and 16 feet high and weighing between 7 and 7 1/2 tons, it can operate at up to 190 mph. It has two Pratt & Whitney engines and has a fuel range of more than 600 miles. Helicopter sales pages list AW139s selling for as much as $13 million.

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(c)2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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