Greenville native and Navy aviator Lt. J.G. Jerry R. Smith loved to fly.
The 26-year-old was doing what he loved with two fellow Navy pilots during a Wednesday training mission when the plane they were in crashed off the coast of North Carolina.
The Navy on Friday declared the three aviators dead.
Search crews found debris from the E-2C Hawkeye turboprop plane but no bodies, said Mike Maus, a spokesman with the Norfolk-based Atlantic Fleet Naval Air Force.
“Today, the actual search by the Navy ceased at 11 a.m.,” Eric Smith, Jerry Smith’s older brother, said Friday from his parents’ home in Greenville. “At 11:01 [a.m.] the Navy actually changed the status of Jerry and the other crew members from missing to deceased.”
The Navy identified those aboard as Smith; Lt. Cameron N. Hall, 30, of Natchitoches, La.; and Lt. Ryan K. Betton, 31, of Collinsville, Va.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation.
The family is grieving, but Eric Smith said, “The bottom line is he was doing what he loves. We’re proud of my brother and he was proud of what he did.”
The E-2C Hawkeye turboprop plane had just launched from the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman when it went down into the Atlantic Ocean in clear weather about 11 p.m. Wednesday.
“He was due to finish his training actually today,” Eric Smith said. “They were doing their carrier qualifications.”
Carrier qualification exercises involve taking off and landing on a carrier deck.
The Norfolk-based carrier was about 150 miles southeast of the Virginia Capes, where the Atlantic and the Chesapeake Bay meet.
Each aviator on the doomed plane had survival gear, Maus said, including a vest with a flotation device that inflates automatically when it comes in contact with salt water, an emergency radio, a signal flare and a whistle. The plane also carries life rafts and parachutes.
The plane is from Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 120, based at Norfolk Naval Station.
Hall was a naval flight officer and had been an instructor with the squadron since April 2006, the Navy said. Betton was a pilot who had been an instructor since 2005. Smith was a pilot who had been a student since June 2006.
The E-2C Hawkeye, distinguished by a giant radar dome mounted atop it, is used for airborne command, control and early warning. It normally carries a crew of five but a full crew is not needed for carrier qualifications.
The Hawkeye is one of the Navy’s safest planes, said April Phillips, a spokeswoman for the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk.
The Smith family has lived in Greenville since 1977, and both of Jerry Smith’s parents, Carroll and Fonda Smith, spent a majority of their teaching careers at the community’s high school.
Jerry Smith attended school in Greenville until reaching his junior year, when he transferred to Penobscot Valley High School in Howland to follow his dad and brother.
“My father was serving those same two years as assistant principal,” Eric Smith said. “And I was there in my first teaching job, teaching high school math.”
Jerry Smith graduated from PVHS in 1999 and played soccer and basketball while in school.
After that, he went to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., graduating in 2003 with a dual major in mechanical and nautical engineering before applying to the U.S. Navy flight school in Lakehurst, N.J. He earned his wings in May 2006.
He got his first taste of flying when he took a trip with Mackie Folsom of Folsom’s Air Service in Greenville while in high school, his brother said.
“That was one of the key times I remember that fueled his desire to fly,” Eric Smith said. “I think he knew [then] he was going to look into flight school.”
Jerry Smith’s parents and his younger sister, Maria, 20, traveled to Virginia in May to visit with him. He was planning a trip home after completing his training and getting his naval assignment, his big brother said.
Greenville is a tight knit community, so a lot of people already know about the death and are offering their support, which can be a very good thing in times like this, Eric Smith said.
He also expressed concern for the other Navy men killed in the crash and their relatives.
“The thoughts and prayers of our family are with the other families, as well,” Eric Smith said.
He expected funeral arrangements for his brother would be completed sometime next week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.