LOS ANGELES (AP) — A man who died after jumping from a helicopter just off the California coast may have committed suicide because he was unable to get surgery for a chronic health condition he struggled with for 15 years, his brother said Wednesday.
Greg McFadden, 61, was the only passenger in the tour helicopter flying above the ocean Tuesday when he opened the door and jumped, authorities said. His drop into the water from as high as 1,000 feet was seen by horrified spectators at Balboa Pier in Newport Beach.
Police said they were investigating the death as a suicide.
Brad McFadden told The Associated Press that his brother had an esophageal disorder that gave him acid reflux and caused him to choke when he went to bed. As a result, Greg McFadden was only able to get a few hours of sleep every night.
He was hoping to get surgery to fix the problem, but it kept getting delayed because he was on Medicare and only a few doctors do the surgery, his brother said.
"It was a very serious problem with him and it may have gotten to a point where it was unbearable," said Brad McFadden, an attorney and former mayor of West Covina, where the family once lived.
Greg McFadden hired the helicopter pilot to take a 30-minute scenic tour of the Southern California coast. The appointment was booked for two people, but McFadden showed up alone, said Chuck Street, a longtime helicopter pilot and a traffic reporter whose son Corbin was flying the chopper.
Chuck Street said he noticed that McFadden had sores all over his forearms but didn't know the cause. Street was not in the aircraft when McFadden jumped but relayed an account provided by his son, who was upset by the incident.
In the air over a lake, McFadden inquired about the altitude of the helicopter and later asked if it could go higher. Corbin Street told his father the aircraft was about 1,000 feet over the ocean when McFadden unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the door, although the Federal Aviation Administration initially said the craft was at about 500 feet.
Corbin Street caught his shirt sleeve as McFadden's flailing hand hit a control stick that made the helicopter pitch upward, Street told his father.
McFadden jumped as the pilot tried to regain control of the aircraft.
Brad McFadden said he couldn't explain why his brother decided to create a spectacle above the popular pier.
"If you are contemplating suicide, which is the best way?" he said. "It's terrible but I guess he was being very creative."
McFadden booked the tour Tuesday morning after another tour operator refused to fly him.
Ric Webb, owner of OC Helicopters, said that McFadden on Sunday had booked a Monday tour for two, but the helicopter operator was wary when McFadden arrived alone and hours early, wearing shorts and flip-flops, and with a ripped plastic grocery bag.
"Something was just off about him - I thought it was chemical," Webb told the Orange County Register. "The look in his eyes was empty."
Webb said he talked with McFadden for several hours. The man kept urging him to fly.
"He said, 'If we don't (fly) today, I'll never be able to come back here again,'" Webb said.
McFadden also asked him to fly at 8,000 feet, Webb said.
Webb said he finally called the Sheriff's Department and deputies escorted McFadden out of his business area at John Wayne Airport, but McFadden kept calling about flights.
"He didn't understand why we weren't going to fly," Web said. "I finally just had to tell him it was a mechanical issue."
Greg McFadden was one of four brothers and the son of a former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who died two years ago at 86. He graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in philosophy. Once out of college, he started writing movie scripts but never sold any.
He had worked as a hotel desk clerk and travel agent but was unemployed for the past decade, collecting Social Security benefits. He wasn't married and had no children.
Brad McFadden described his older brother as a loner who was whip-smart when it came to math. The last time he saw his sibling was two years ago, when Greg McFadden moved out of his house. One of the other McFadden brothers had spoken to Greg a couple of months ago, and he talked about his health condition, Brad McFadden said.
"He was a very good man," he said. "He cared for people, loved animals and was a down-to-earth guy."
Chuck Street said his 25-year-old son was frazzled by the events.
"He will never look at a passenger the same again because this will be in the back his mind," Street said.