The vintage aircraft was scheduled to participate in the Jones Beach Air Show on Long Island this weekend, and it had already flown twice Friday before the crash, ABC News reported.
The American Airpower Museum was celebrating the Thunderbolt’s 75th anniversary, and the plane had been participating in a promotional photo shoot at the time of the crash, according to the New York Times.
“Clearly we are dealing with a tragedy,” museum spokesman Gary Lewi told the New York Times. “It’s crushing.”
“An extraordinary pilot who understood the powerful message our aircraft represent in telling the story of American courage and valor died after bringing our P-47 Thunderbolt to a forced emergency landing in the Hudson River,” the American Airpower Museum said in a statement. “Bill Gordon was a nationally respected Pilot in our Warbird Community and we are honored to call him one of our own.”
Hours after the crash, the plane was secured to a harbor launch, and rescue divers entered the aircraft, according to New York police. They removed the pilot from the water, who was declared dead by emergency medical personnel.
Gordon was a “veteran airshow performer of over 25 years” and an “Aerobatic Competency Evaluator for the air show industry” who certified air-show performers to executive “low level aerobatics,” a profile from an April Key West airshow says about him.
He “spent many years as the chief pilot of Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome” in Upstate New York and “has many hours in very unstable WWII aircraft,” according to Naval Air Station Key West. “[Gordon] will be flying for American Airpower Museum next year doing Aerobatic displays with the Corsair and the P-40 as well as the P-47 and TBM Avenger.”
It’s not yet clear what downed the P-47 on Friday. By Saturday afternoon, police divers and Army Corps of Engineers personnel had pulled the wreckage from the water, according to AP.
“The [Federal Aviation Administration] and appropriate agencies will determine the reason for the inflight emergency and accident therefore please understand that as a result we will limit our public statement at this time,” the museum said in a statement.
Dozens of people witnessed the plane crash. Diners at Waterside Restaurant in North Bergen, N.J., told NBC New York they saw the plane attempting to land and then dive nose first into the water.
“We saw it splashing into the water and disappearing,” Sabine DeMeuter told the station. “We were in shock.”
Other witnesses told local media that they first thought the plane was doing stunts or that the smoke coming from the water was part of the upcoming air show.
Some bystanders even tried to rescue the pilot by diving into the river, Coast Guard spokesman Frank Iannazzo-Simmons told the New York Times.
The plane had been housed for 16 years at the museum, located about 40 miles from Manhattan in Farmingdale, N.Y.
“It certainly has a solid performance history,” Lewi told ABC News, adding that it showed “no sign whatsoever, or any suggestion of a problem.”
“Thunderbolt pilots flew into battle with the thundering roar of a 2000-horsepower radial engine and the deadly flash of eight .50 caliber machine guns,” according to the Smithsonian. “This combination of a robust, reliable engine and heavy armament made the Thunderbolt successful. U.S. Army Forces (AAF) commanders considered it one of the three premier American fighter aircraft, alongside the North American P-51 Mustang and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning.”
Friday’s crash took place near the same site where US Airways Flight 1549 made a successful, emergency splash-landing in 2009, referred to as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
The museum announced that it “will stand down” from its planned Jones Beach airshow operations, and instead perform a salute.
“For the Past 16 years the Thunderbolt has been a potent symbol of our museum, a keystone to our public presentations here and throughout the north east,” the museum announced. “It is our commitment to Bill, our fraternity of pilots, docents, and ground personnel that our mission will continue, our focus undiminished in presenting these historic aircraft to the new generation so that they better understand our nation’s fight to preserve and protect our freedoms.”
[This post has been updated.]