Hawaii tour helicopter crash kills 6; 1 missing
HONOLULU (AP) — Tour helicopter operations in Hawaii are under increased scrutiny after a deadly crash this week, one of several recent fatal accidents in the state, with a congressman calling the trips unsafe and lacking proper oversight.
A helicopter that was set to tour Kauai’s rugged Na Pali Coast, the picturesque and remote northern shoreline of Kauai that was featured in the film “Jurassic Park,” crashed on a nearby mountaintop Thursday killing six people and leaving another missing.
There are no indications that anybody survived the crash. There were six people from two different families and a pilot on the flight. Two of the passengers were believed to be minors, the U.S. Coast Guard said. The search for the missing person resumed Saturday morning.
U.S. Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii cited fatal accidents over the years, blaming the Federal Aviation Administration for not taking National Transportation Safety Board safety improvement efforts seriously and the industry for not regulating itself.
“Tour helicopter and small aircraft operations are not safe, and innocent lives are paying the price,” said Case, a Democrat. “In our Hawaii alone, the industry, while stridently arguing that it is safe and sensitive to neighborhoods, has in fact ignored any sensible safety improvements, instead dramatically increasing in recent years its volume of flights, at all times of day and night, in seemingly all weather over more residential neighborhoods and to more risky and remote locations, at lower altitudes, while completely failing to address ground safety and community disruption concerns.”
The FAA, however, said it conducts random and regular surveillance on all Hawaii air tour operators and ensures companies address any issues, agency spokesman Ian Gregor said in an email. He said the FAA does not have concerns about the industry statewide.
The helicopter company, identified as Safari Helicopters, contacted the Coast Guard on Thursday evening after the helicopter did not return to the airport as scheduled. A search began but steep terrain, low visibility, choppy seas and rain complicated the search.
A person who answered the phone at a number listed for Safari Helicopters declined to comment and hung up.
According to a preliminary report, the pilot said the tour was leaving the Waimea Canyon area, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” about 4:40 p.m., which was the last contact with the helicopter, Kauai police said. It was due to return at 5:30 p.m., and officials were notified about 30 minutes later.
The Eurocopter AS350 has an emergency electronic locator transmitter, but no signals were received. The locator devices are designed to activate when an aircraft crashes, Gregor said in an email.
The FAA requires the locators to be able to withstand impact. However, it is possible for the device to stop working in an extreme crash, Gregor said.
He said the agency is looking at the company’s safety record but likely won’t have a full report until Monday. It’s looking into the crash along with the NTSB, which announced Friday that it was sending three investigators to Kauai.
The NTSB aviation accident database lists nine crashes of Hawaii helicopter sightseeing flights in the last 10 years, including three with fatalities.
After a Hawaii skydiving plane crashed and killed 11 people in June, the NTSB called on the FAA to tighten its regulations governing parachute operations. The FAA said at the time that it had made changes to address NTSB recommendations.
The chopper that crashed this week along a route used by other tour helicopters on Kauai was found in a mountainous region inland from the Na Pali Coast, which is one of the most dramatic and sought-after destinations in Hawaii. Towering mountains with deep ravines and huge waterfalls make up the interior of the uninhabited state park. Red rock cliffs with thick jungle canopies rise from the Pacific Ocean to over 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) high.
Ladd Sanger, a Texas-based aviation attorney and helicopter pilot who has handled several crash cases involving similar helicopters in Hawaii, said tour operators on Kauai face unique challenges because of weather and topography.
Kauai “has microclimates, so the weather at the airport is going to be different than up at the crash location,” Sanger said. “Those microclimates can come on very quickly and dissipate quickly too, so the weather reporting is difficult.”
Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Dan Dennison, who has spent years visiting and photographing the area, said winter brings more rain and turbulent seas.
“You can have very low ceilings. You can have fog and cloud banks that move in very quickly. You can have heavy rain and strong winds that make flying difficult if not impossible at times,” he said.
The shoreline has beaches that could potentially serve as emergency landing zones, but they are “few and far between,” Dennison said.
And even the beaches that are there would be a tight spot to land a helicopter.
“Kauai is incredibly unforgiving terrain,” Sanger said. “If you lose the engine there’s just really no place to land on the tour route that they were flying.”