Pilot who died in Apollo Beach helicopter crash had years of experience flying

John "Larry" Ward, who died in the crash, was an airline pilot and helicopter instructor.

TAMPA — John "Larry" Ward loved to fly.

Ward spent more than 20 years as a commercial captain for American Airlines, his family said, flying internationally and across the country. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Ward was also a licensed helicopter pilot instructor, they said.

Still, on Friday afternoon, his years of experience were not enough.

Piloting a Robinson R22 helicopter, Ward, 60, crashed into shallow water off the coast of Apollo Beach. Hillsborough County sheriff's divers recovered his body Saturday morning.

The cause of the crash is under investigation.

On Saturday, his family and friends gathered at the home he shared with his wife on Davis Islands.

"His wife Karen and friends, especially his pilot friends, were shocked by this tragedy because Larry was meticulous as a pilot," said Jeff Willis, a friend who released a statement on behalf of the family.

Ward took off from Tampa Bay Aviation in Clearwater on Friday afternoon, said Larry McKinnon, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office. Witnesses watched as his helicopter crashed into Tampa Bay just after 3 p.m. near Pine Key, also known as "Beer Can Island."

An off-duty police officer, among others, called 911, and authorities from across Hillsborough responded with trucks, boats and divers. They suspended the search Friday night and resumed Saturday morning.

The Sheriff's Office turned the investigation over to the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board on Saturday, McKinnon said.

Through Willis, Ward's family said they believe a malfunction may have been to blame.

"The information available strongly suggests that this was the result of mechanical failure," Willis said.

The Robinson R22 is a small, two-bladed, single-engine helicopter. The owner of the helicopter has not been identified.

Zack Taylor, president of Clearwater Helicopters, said it has not been confirmed that the helicopter belongs to his company, though they do have one of the same type missing.

"We are cooperating with the FAA, giving them any records and answering any questions they have," Taylor said. "No one will know what happened until they finish their investigation."

The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office will conduct an autopsy to determine the official cause of death, McKinnon said.

Ward had lived on Davis Islands for 20 years, Willis said. He celebrated his 60th birthday on Thanksgiving.

"Karen appreciates the concerns expressed by family and friends regarding Larry's death," Willis said.

Times staff writer Amy Scherzer contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.