Dr. Richard Carmona called Loren Leonberger a "pilot's pilot."

Carmona spoke slowly on the phone Monday afternoon as he remembered his friend Leonberger, 60, the Pima Sheriff's Department civilian pilot who died in Monday's crash near Avra Valley. He had been with the department since 2008.

Carmona called the Vietnam veteran and longtime pilot a wonderful public servant. "In his lifetime, he has saved literally thousands of people," he said.

Carmona vividly remembers a dramatic rescue in 1992, when Leonberger, then a pilot for the Department of Public Safety, hovered his helicopter above the crash of a Medivac helicopter that had slammed into a snowy cliff in the Pinaleño Mountains near Safford.

Susan Ben-Asher Newton and Dale Matthews, the nurse and pilot, were killed. Glenn Velardi, a medic who survived, spent the night waiting for rescue.

In dramatic fashion, Deputy Tom Price and Carmona rappelled to Velardi. Price helped Carmona rig himself into a harness with Velardi. Al Quezada, a DPS flight medic, helped direct the operation from the helicopter, which flew Carmona and Velardi, dangling and spinning from the end of a 75-foot line, to safety. Carmona, then the head of the trauma unit at Tucson Medical Center, went on to become U.S. surgeon general.

He credited Leonberger's "nerves of steel" and expert flying skills for a successful rescue that earned both men medals. "He did extraordinarily under pressure," Carmona said. "Loren made that all possible."

Richard Thacher, DPS aviation bureau commander, said he remembers flying to the border with Leonberger during the monsoon season to do medical evacuations.

"He was very safe; he always checked the weather. But he was very courageous too," said Thacher, a pilot himself, who worked with Leonberger during his 20 years as a DPS air-rescue helicopter pilot.

The two pilots served in the Arizona Army National Guard assault helicopter battalion together in the 1980s. Leonberger was an Army pilot in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971.

Thacher said he knows Leonberger shared his desire to serve the public, which he thinks stemmed from their military experience.

"He could have retired years ago, but he chose to keep serving," Thacher said. "That's what he was doing today."

Carmona said he spent time with Leonberger's wife Monday.

"It's terrible. They weren't just husband and wife - they were best buddies," Carmona said.

Leonberger had no children, but is also survived by 12 siblings.