BOGOTA, Colombia » Actor Tom Cruise flew in a helicopter across the Colombian Andes just 10 minutes before a small plane on the same dangerous flight path crashed into a jungled mountain, killing two crew members from his upcoming movie, civil aviation authorities said.
An official with the aviation agency, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter, said the cause of the crashFriday that killed two people and seriously injured a third is still under investigation.
Those killed were veteran Hollywood pilot Alan Purwin and Venezuelan Carlos Berl, while another American, Jimmy Lee Garland, survived. All were experienced pilots although it’s not clear which of the three were in command of the plane at the time of the crash, the official said.
"Jimmy is the black box right now so we need to talk to him to find out what happened," the official said.
They crashed while returning to the city of Medellin on the twin-engine Piper-Aerostar 600 after a day of filming with Cruise for the film "Mena," which stars the actor as American pilot Barry Seal, a drug runner recruited in the 1980s by the CIA to try to capture the late cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.
Cruise, a pilot, arrived in Medellin last month flying the same 1960s-era plane, which was similar to the one Seal would have flown for Escobar’s cartel, the official said. Photos of the actor sitting in the cockpit of the US-registered plane, and standing with Purwin outside the aircraft, have circulated for days in social media.
On Friday, Cruise left in one of two helicopters transporting crew from the colonial town of Santa Fe de Antioquia at around 5 p.m. local time. When they arrived at Medellin’s Olaya Herrera airport with nightfall approaching, and the plane didn’t show up, they alerted air traffic controllers, the official said.
A plane overhead located the downed aircraft just below a high ridge thanks to a distress signal, allowing rescuers to arrive to the crash site quickly and rush Garland to a hospital in Medellin, where he was in critical but stable condition.
"We were very lucky to get there so quickly," said the official.
This is the second time an aviator has died while working on a film with Cruise. Famed stunt pilot Art Scholl went down in waters near San Diego while performing a nose dive during the 1985 making of "Top Gun."
Although there were no reports of bad weather in Santa Fe de Antioquia when the plane took off, the official described the normally 10-minute flight as a "bungee jump" or "roller coaster" requiring a skilled pilot to quickly take the plane from near sea level to a height of 3,000 meters, or 9,800 feet, to clear the Andes before descending sharply for the approach into the steep valley surrounding Medellin.
The official said the three pilots had flown the route at least a half-dozen times in recent days but were flying without the assistance of instruments and could have been disoriented by heavy clouds that regularly form near the crest of the Andes. When filming in other parts of the country, such as the Amazon, the crew of "Mena" had heeded authorities recommendation they have a Colombian pilot on board, the official said.
Colombia’s jagged terrain, heavy rainfall and long, empty distances makes it one of the most dangerous places in the world for aviators. Medellin’s Olaya Herrera airport has been the site of numerous accidents since the 1935 crash that killed famed Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel. It closes at night and allows only domestic flights.
Cruise was able to land there on Aug. 20 because his flight originated in Barranquilla, along the country’s Caribbean coast, and he was accompanied by a Colombian co-pilot, the official said.
Garland is a flight instructor and manager of a regional airport near Atlanta. A representative at the Cherokee County Airport, who declined to be identified out of respect for her boss’ privacy, told The Associated Press that the producers of "Mena" shot several flight scenes at the facility and were so impressed with Garland’s professionalism as a flying double for Cruise that they brought him to Colombia to continue filming there.
The Colombian official said Garland underwent three operations overnight and a specialist from the U.S. was arriving to assist in his recovery.
Cruise’s spokeswoman, Amanda Lundberg, had no comment on Friday’s accident and the film’s director Doug Liman as well as local and US-based producers did not reply to emails and phone calls seeking comment.
"Our hearts and prayers go out to the crew members and their families at this difficult time," Universal Pictures, which is distributing the film, said in a statement. It declined further comment, saying more details weren’t available.
Purwin was founder and president of Los Angeles-based Helinet Technologies. On the company’s website, he’s described as "one of the top film pilots of his generation" with a list of credits from television and major Hollywood movies such as "Transformers," ”Pearl Harbor" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."
"There are no words that can express our heartache for we have lost one of the world’s greatest helicopter pilots and one of aviation’s greatest leaders," Helinet CEO Steve Gatena said in a statement posted on the company’s website.
In his last tweet sent Wednesday, Purwin expressed joy at flying between 12,000-foot peaks and posted a picture of a plane trailed by a helicopter landing at Santa Fe de Antioquia’s dirt runway.
Associated Press writers Derrik J. Lang in Los Angeles and Jacobo Garcia in Bogota contributed to this report.