One of two Kaua‘i helicopter tour companies involved in fatal accidents responded yesterday to a federal report that found pilot error caused two crashes that killed a total of eight people in 2004 and 2005.
A National Transportation and Safety Board report found that both pilots continued to operate in bad weather, causing a Bali Hai Helicopters Tours chopper to crash into a mountain on Sept. 24, 2004, killing five, and a Heli USA craft to crash into the ocean Sept. 23, 2005.
On Monday in Australia, Heli USA responded on Travel Blackboard, an online Australian industry newsletter, laying the blame squarely on weather.
“It appears from the investigation that severe weather built up quickly on the North Shore of Kaua‘i, generating severe wind sheer, thunder and micro bursts,” the company said. “From all published reports it appears these conditions may have led to causing the severity of the incident.”
The Heli USA aircraft ditched several hundred feet off the Na Pali Coast and sank quickly. Three people including the pilot survived while three others drowned.
The Associated Press has reported that all passengers had waist pouches containing personal flotation vests, though not all of them were able to exit the craft and inflate them.
“From the investigation our helicopter … was equipped with government-required safety equipment, including personal flotation devises,” Heli USA said on etravelblackboard.com.
NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker told the AP more lives might have been saved if the aircraft had flotation equipment, recommended by the NTSB as far back as 1995.
Since the crash, Heli USA said it is one to two Kaua‘i operators to install external inflatable floats on its helicopters, allowing them to “fly beyond autorotative distance from shore and conduct interisland commercial operations.”
The NTSB report also found that in eight weather-related tour helicopter crashes in the state since 1994, half the pilots were “relatively new” to flying in Hawai‘i and inexperienced in assessing local weather conditions, which can change quickly.
The board came down particularly hard on Bali Hai, finding that its pilots often fly between seven- and eight-hour shifts without lunch or bathroom breaks, and often did not leave the cockpit while on the ground — a process that “likely had an adverse impact on pilot decision-making and performance.”
While Heli USA defended its pilots as “highly qualified,” the company did say the pilot involved in the 2005 crash is not currently flying for any carrier or helicopter company until he is recertified by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Heli USA has 150 employees spread over Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Five of its 12 helicopters fly in Hawai‘i.
“It is particularly upsetting for all of us as our company’s No. 1 priority has — and will always be — flight safety and this is the first serious accident the company has had after safely carrying more than 1 million passengers,” Heli USA said on the Australian Web site.
The NTSB’s report and subsequent recommendations come after safety investigators examined 107 accidents that resulted in 98 fatalities between 1988 and 1995.
What the NTSB and FAA recommend:
• Increased surveillance of air tour operators, maintenance policies and flight scheduling;
• Requiring tour helicopters that fly over water to be equipped with fixed or inflatable floats;
• Installing flight tracking and on-board weather technology for Hawai‘i air tour aircraft;
• Implementing training for new Hawai‘i tour pilots regarding local weather patterns.
• Ford Gunter, associate editor, may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or email@example.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.