Helicopter crash report a case of ‘he said, he said’

The circumstances surrounding the fatal Heli USA Airways crash Sept. 23 off the Ha’ena Coast remains a “he said, he said,” situation.

According to a preliminary report issued Tuesday by investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and compiled by lead investigator Debra Eckrote, Heli USA pilot Glen Lampton told investigators the Heli USA Airways Aerospatiale AS 350BA, N355NT (registered to Jan Leasing LLC, of Las Vegas, Nevada) was at 2,000 feet flying along Na Pali Coast toward Kailiu Point. Lampton said he had encountered some weather in Waimea Canyon.

According to the preliminary report, as the flight approached Ke’e Beach, Lampton noted rain showers which appeared to be offshore. As he came around the point, Lampton said he “suddenly saw a MD500 coming straight for me.” He made a left turn to avoid the traffic, and as the helicopter leveled out, it encountered heavy rain.

Based on interviews, other pilots, including Ian Bagano, who was at the helm of an McDonnell Douglas 500 (MD500, or Hughes 500D) owned by Inter-Island Helicopters, were at about 300 feet above sea level, getting out of the weather.

Bagano said he was well below 2,000 feet during this course reversal, and it wasn’t until he was near Hanakapi’ai Beach, several miles to the southwest of the Kailiu Point, before he heard Lampton’s mayday call.

Eckrote said she had no hard data to support the eyewitness accounts of the pilots. She said there was no radar operating in that area.

The preliminary report is a narrative, and does not draw conclusions. It is based upon interviews with pilots and other personnel, none of whom are identified in the report.

Eckrote said she hoped to have the final report finished in three to six months.

According to NTSB officials, the preliminary information is subject to change, and may contain errors which will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

During preliminary interviews and a subsequent written statement, Lampton reported that, at the completion of his lunch break, he spoke with a representative at the Princeville Heli USA Airways base, who reported no adverse weather conditions.

Preliminary interviews with other air-tour-operator pilots in the area reported that the weather off of the Kailiu Point had been building all day.

Eckrote said that, because there is no weather station in the vicinity, pilots had to depend upon each other’s reports.

Lampton told NTSB investigators he could still see down and to the right to the coastline. The pilot opted to reduce airspeed to 60-80 knots, and started a 15-to-20-degree right turn over the beach. The helicopter got about 160 degrees into the turn when the airspeed went to zero and the aircraft started to rapidly descend. Lampton attempted to control the helicopter with control inputs, which had no effect.

The pilot stated that he realized that they were going to hit the beach, and applied full power. The rate of descent suddenly stopped, and the helicopter went back up in the air momentarily, and entered an immediate hard spin to the left. According to the report, Lampton instructed the passengers to open the doors, and he transmitted a mayday call as the helicopter impacted the water, bounced back into the air, then impacted the water again, still spinning, but remaining on the surface for a short time before it eventually rolled to the right.

At approximately 2:15 p.m. the Heli USA copter hit the ocean several hundred yards off the coastline at Ke’e Beach, near Ha’ena.

The flight encountered instrument meteorological conditions just prior to the accident.

According to Zoe Keliher of the NTSB, Lampton was not instrumentrated. A company flight plan was in effect. The pilot and two passengers received minor injuries. The remaining

three passengers were fatally injured. The flight departed from Lihu’e Airport at 1:54 p.m. for the intended 45-minute tour.

Lampton reported that the weather was good until he reached Waimea Canyon. Clouds were present in the canyon, therefore he exited the area at the lower microwave station, near the entrance to the canyon, and proceeded to Na Pali Coast.

The pilot flying a tour about 15 minutes prior to the accident said that he encountered the rain at the Kailiu Point and made a gradual descent to about 300 feet above ground level. The pilot was able to maintain visual reference with the coastline, and continued on his tour route.

According to the NTSB preliminary report, this pilot reported no encounter with turbulence, downdrafts, lightning or windshear, while maneuvering through the rain. One other pilot in front of the MD500 and doomed Heli USA craft also reported that he entered the rain shower and descended to 300 feet just past Ke’e Beach before he made a course reversal due to deteriorating visibility.

According to the preliminary report, Bagano also reported encountering the rain showers, and he too made a controlled descent to a lower altitude to maintain ground reference. The visibility decreased to a point where he, too, opted to reverse course.

Based upon earlier reports, the two surviving passengers, Karen Clifton, 44, and her husband Bill Thorson, 48, said they didn’t believe Lampton had to maneuver to avoid hitting the other helicopter. They said they saw a helicopter below them.

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