First-time flyer Reginald Hilliard Jr., 25, and his girlfriend, Briana Davis, boarded a small Cessna 172 to take a sightseeing tour—a surprise birthday gift from Davis—when the plane encountered a rainstorm, reported the New Orleans Advocate.
“The couple had hired the aircraft to take them on a night time flight around the city of New Orleans,” said Lakefront Airport Director Ben Morris, reported KLFY News.
Davis had documented the birthday surprise on Instagram.
Officials said the pilot, Jim Biondo, who had decades of experience, didn’t call for help. As the plane landed on Lake Pontchartrain, Hilliard, who is an experienced swimmer, pushed Davis out of the plane. He went back to save Biondo, who was knocked unconscious by the impact of the water landing. His body was found still buckled into his seat when the aircraft was pulled from the lake on Tuesday morning. Hilliard’s body was also found inside the plane.
A private yacht rescued Davis from the water and she was later transported to a local hospital. She has since been released from the hospital. Davis had survived the crash because of Hilliard’s sacrifice.
“Whether he knew you or not, he wouldn’t leave you behind, and that is the reason why I lost my son,” Hilliard’s father told the New Orleans Advocate. “Because he refused to leave anybody behind.”
Yolanda White, Hilliard’s cousin told WDSU, “He’s the hero. He was a hero living. You know, he died that way.”
Biondo was remembered for his love of planes and flying.
“He would drive an hour each way just to come fly an hour tour,” friend Lindy Hammonds told WWLTV.
“Just a good guy. A good pilot. I know from things that were said the people that were on the tour with him enjoyed it. They had a good time. They had a great flight.”
Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said federal officials are investigating the wreckage to determine the cause of the crash.
“It’s going to be moved to a secure facility in which they’ll do a detailed wreckage layout and examine it further,” Weiss said.
Reginald Hilliard Jr. is survived by three children.