Mark Croce took up flying for personal reasons. But his passion for flight, and his willingness to share it with others, made him the envy of fellow flyers and helped capture stirring images of his community.
Croce, 58, and friend Michael Capriotto died Thursday night when the helicopter Croce was piloting crashed into the backyard of a house in Mechanicsburg, Pa.
Longtime friend and fellow developer Anthony Kissling, who said he was "devastated" by the news of Croce's death, said he rode with Croce in his helicopter several times.
Kissling, a pilot himself who flew planes for 35 years, said Croce was "very careful" in the cockpit, and was not one to take risks. Croce told Buffalo Rising in 2008 that he accumulated about 300 flight hours a year in a plane and helicopter he owned at the time.
"He was a very good pilot, very careful to get his pre-flight stuff completely," Kissling said. "I’m amazed. It must have been a mechanical failure."
Kissling recalled one time that Croce was in Albany with his plane and had planned to fly down to White Plains to visit Kissling. However, Croce canceled because of icing conditions.
"He wasn’t the kind of guy to fly in bad weather," Kissling said.
James Sandoro, a good friend of Croce's, said he flew with him "easily 100 times."
"He is the best pilot I ever flew with," said Sandoro, a local business owner and executive director of the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum. "He was the most conscientious, no-nonsense pilot."
In early 2008, around the time Croce turned 47, a News reporter asked him if he had his midlife crisis yet.
"Probably. I took up aviation when I was 42, a newfound hobby that I sunk my life into for a while. I'm very deep into it. It's something I do three or four times a week — fly. I bought myself a plane and a helicopter. I do it because it takes my mind off my day-to-day work and life. It gives me a mental escape because I have to focus on the tasks at hand."
In the same interview, he was asked if he was a risk taker.
"It depends," he said. "In business absolutely. Do I gamble? No. Some people look at my businesses as big gambles. I look at it as a no-brainer. Is aviation risky? I guess so, but I control that risk."
In an interview with The News in 2010, he described flying with his family in his helicopter, including with his then-10-month-old son, Dominic.
"I took (Dominic) up for the first time and he loved it," he said at the time. "He fell asleep like he does in the back of a car."
Unbeknownst to many, Croce's aviation skills led to one of the most iconic photographs to ever appear on the pages of The Buffalo News.
On Feb. 13, 2009, the day after the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence, Croce called a Buffalo News reporter and asked if someone from The News wanted to try to get a view of the scene from above. Derek Gee, then a staff photographer at The News, went up with Croce on that Friday, but because of restrictions put in place around the site, they weren’t able to get close enough to obtain usable photographs.
So they flew around downtown for 30 to 45 minutes. On that flight, Gee snapped photographs of the city from above. The next day, Gee called Croce and asked if they could try in Clarence again. After some initial hesitance, the developer agreed to give it a go.
It turns out the airspace restrictions had shrunk, so the aircraft could get a closer on that Valentine’s Day afternoon.
What resulted were the first aerial images seen by the public showing the scope of devastation caused by the tragic plane crash.
For Gee, now the News' chief photographer, Croce used his interest in flying to benefit people other than himself.
“It wasn’t just for him,” Gee said. “He shared it with others.”
News Staff Reporters Jonathan Epstein and Mark Sommer contributed to this story.