CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Princeville residents Bill Malish, left, and Jim Boulton recall neighbor Joe Sulak as a "gentle, nice guy."
Neighbors, kin and clients remember pilot with fondness
If anyone could have brought down a malfunctioning helicopter safely, it would be Joe "Helicopter Joe" Sulak, one of his two sisters said yesterday.
4 people die, 3 people suffer injuries
Here are the victims of Thursday's helicopter crash at Princeville Airport:
» John O'Donnell of East Rockaway, N.Y., was killed, and his wife, Veronica, was in critical condition.
» Teri McCarty of Cabot, Ark., died. Her husband, James, was in critical condition.
» Margaret Inglebrecht of Santa Maria, Calif., was killed, and her husband, Cornelius Scholtz, was in critical condition.
» Joe Sulak, pilot, of Princeville, Kauai, died.
"I know my brother. I know how competent he was and that he would do everything within his power to bring his people home safely, the same way he did in Vietnam, the same way he did with medevac," Susan Sulak said by telephone yesterday from her home in Morgan, Texas.
"He never did less than his best. That's who he is," she said, referring to her West Texas-raised brother who moved to Kauai three years ago from California and flew helicopter tours for Heli USA.
Joe Sulak, 59, and three of the six passengers on his A-Star 350BA helicopter were killed Thursday afternoon when it crashed at Princeville Airport. Three survivors were taken in critical condition Thursday night to the Queen's Medical Center on Oahu.
When Princeville resident Bill Malish learned yesterday that his neighbor and friend had died in the accident, he looked down and shook his head.
"I was hoping it wasn't him," Malish said of Sulak, who like him was raised in Texas. "He was a real gentle, nice guy. ...
"We would always wave at each other and say howdy," Malish said.
Jim Boulton, another neighbor in Sulak's quiet, manicured neighborhood, said the pilot had a habit of watching the sunrise and sunset each day from his bedroom balcony.
"He was the top pilot with Heli USA," said Boulton. "I know other pilots looked up to him. He was kind of the father figure."
When new pilots for the company arrived, Sulak would help them get acclimated to the Garden Isle.
"It seems like it's always the good ones that go like that," he said.
"If there was any way to bring that chopper down and save the people in it, my brother would have done it," Susan Sulak said. "The fact that three people survived it, in my mind he is a hero. ... My brother knew what he was doing. He was a good man and an awesome pilot."
"I am so sorry for the people who lost their lives in that crash," Sulak said. "I know it was not my brother's fault, and I am so thankful that people survived."
Sulak said she has talked with her brother's two children, Carrie and Andrew, who live on the mainland, and his other sister, who also lives in Texas.
"I think he lived life very courageously," said Donna Hermann of Exton, Pa., who was on Joe Sulak's 3 p.m. flight Wednesday, the day before the crash.
During an hourlong flight, Sulak showed his passengers the Na Pali Coast and humpback whales, said another Wednesday passenger, Bette Conroy of Avalon, N.J.
"It was a wonderful flight," Conroy said, and Sulak's piloting emphasized safety.
"He was not a loop-the-loop pilot," said Gini Wittorff, of Wayne, Pa., who also was on the 3 p.m. Wednesday flight. "He wanted people to enjoy the scenery."
Though Wittorff described the flight as safe, she said she would be reluctant to take another helicopter ride. "That could've been us," she said.
Boulton said, "He (Sulak) loved Kauai. He loved flying.
"That was his passion."
Then Boulton choked up in tears. "Now he's flying with the angels."