James Biondo was flying the single-engine plane no more than 6 feet above Lake Pontchartrain's waves when he tried to reassure his two passengers that everything would be OK.
Straining his neck to see over his control panel and through a windshield pelted by rain, Biondo told his passengers that he had the situation under control.
Sitting behind him, Reginald Hilliard and Briana Davis clutched one another's hands.
And then the Cessna 172 slammed into the water and started sinking a short distance from New Orleans’ Lakefront Airport. Hilliard shouted an expletive as he and Davis, his girlfriend, scrambled to unbuckle their safety belts.
Everything went pitch black as Davis swam out of a door that Hilliard managed to kick open, eventually reaching the surface, where she was rescued by a passing boat.
Neither Hilliard, a 25-year-old from Baton Rouge, nor Biondo, 58, of Thibodaux, was as fortunate.
Reginald Hilliard Sr. believes his son died a hero after the plane he had boarded to take a sightseeing trip with his girlfriend crashed into …
They died after the Aug. 27, 2016, crash whose final moments were detailed in a National Transportation Safety Board report released this week.
The report does not identify the cause of the deadly wreck. It contains only a smattering of facts collected by investigators as they work toward issuing their final findings at a later date.
But it provides the most complete account yet of an ill-fated, 45-minute sightseeing flight Davis had bought as a birthday gift for Hilliard.
Investigators wrote that they spoke with multiple people who said Biondo had the reputation of flying low on his approach to landings.
Aside from some lightning near the airport before takeoff, Davis told investigators she didn’t notice anything worrisome for most of the flight.
She said Biondo, flying a plane registered to Christiansen Aviation, was nice to the couple, who were posting videos and photos of their “Big Easy Lights at Night” flight on their social media accounts.
But as they headed back to the airport for the end of the flight, rain started falling, and Davis realized she couldn’t “see very much of anything” outside the windows, the report says.
In an apparent attempt to comfort his passengers, Biondo pointed out that four red lights up ahead signaled “where the airport was,” according to the report.
Yet Davis could see they were only a few feet above the lake’s surface. She also noticed Biondo was apparently struggling to see out of the plane, even as he insisted that "nothing was going to happen that he didn’t want to happen," the report said.
The plane crashed moments later. After she reached the surface, rain fell on Davis.
She swallowed “a lot” of lake water as she fought to keep her head above the surface. Someone in a private boat passing by ultimately scooped her up and took her to safety.
Three days later, authorities pulled the plane’s wreckage out of the lake, finding the bodies of Biondo and Hilliard inside.
The report does not mention whether an autopsy was performed on Hilliard, who had never before been on a flight and apparently drowned. An autopsy on Biondo showed he drowned, the report says.
Relatives of Hilliard filed a lawsuit seeking damages from a number of defendants, including Biondo’s estate, Christiansen, the Flight Academy of New Orleans, the Jazz Aviation tour operator and multiple insurers. The suit remains pending in Orleans Parish Civil District Court.