CHILI, N.Y. (WIVB) – He was humble. He was an animal lover. He was a dedicated professional. He had an infectious personality with the pilot skills to match. All of these things were said about James Sauer Monday as family and friends gathered to say goodbye.

Sauer, 60, and Bell Helicopter instructor Stewart Dietrick, also 60, died last Tuesday during a Mercy Flight training exercise. Their helicopter went down in Genesee County. The NTSB is investigating.

On Monday, an estimated 1,500 loved ones gathered at the Open Door Baptist Church in the Rochester suburb of Chili for Sauer’s funeral. Hundreds of them were first responders, who greeted Sauer’s flag-draped casket with a salute.

“You met him for five minutes and you became a friend for life,” recalled friend Bill Acousti.

Over the course of his life, Sauer, known to those close to him as Jim, served as a police officer, State Police pilot, National Guardsman, and, for the last two years of his life, Mercy Flight pilot.

“Jim Sauer was the very best that this culture could produce,” said friend Patrick Lewalter. “There are a lot of first responders out there. The family and friends would appreciate a prayer for them.”

“Seeing the outpouring of love for Jim in the community, it’s just a small picture of how much Jim loved everybody else,” said Jonathan Schallmo, who knew Sauer from church.

Chris Horvatits is an award-winning reporter who joined the News 4 team in December 2017. See more of his work here.