Pilot details ‘forced landing’

State mission removes 14,000 pounds of rubbish from remote Westside valley

by Nathan Eagle – THE GARDEN ISLAND

Inter-Island Air Helicopters pilot Floyd Ingram was flying 100 feet over Polihale State Park when his Hughes MD 500 aircraft lost power late Wednesday morning.

The decisions he made in the next three seconds marked the difference between a forced landing and a serious crash, walking away uninjured or possibly dying.

“The work that Inter-Island performs for the community is inherently dangerous,” he said yesterday. “It’s extremely high-risk, especially long-lining and slinging materials.”

Ingram was part of a state mission to remove rubbish from Kalalau Valley where hundreds of thousands of people from around the world go hiking and an untold number of individuals reside without the required camping permits.

The work involved two helicopters each using a long line and cargo net as a sling to haul trash out of the remote Westside valley along the rugged Na Pali Coast.

“While on my final approach to the landing zone at Polihale, I had a loss of power,” Ingram said. “I immediately initiated an auto rotation and took a flight path clear of any people on the ground.”

An auto rotation is a procedure performed when there is a power loss, he said. It utilizes the stored inertia in the main rotor system to assist in a landing.

Bleeding the rotor to cushion the landing caused the main rotor to droop, he said, which chopped off the tail boom in the process.

The helicopter’s rear end never struck the ground, Ingram said, the blades severed it.

He landed the chopper on its skids around 11:40 a.m. on a dirt public access road that was blocked off when the mission started at 7 a.m.

“I knew where everyone was and where I wanted to go,” said Ingram, a veteran pilot who has flown hundreds of combat missions. “I put the aircraft down in a controlled area that was the safest spot to land.”

The middle-aged part-time South Shore resident said there is always a high risk with work involving external loads.

“It’s just as dangerous as flying in a combat mission,” Ingram said. “You have to have a presence of mind to assess and react to the situation and choose the most effective course of action for the safety of the people on the ground and yourself.”

Special operations forces worldwide use the Hughes 500 aircraft, which cost roughly $1.5 million apiece, he said.

“It is designed and built with safety in mind,” Ingram said.

The pilot said the Wednesday mission started off fine and there were no indications anything was wrong with the aircraft.

Inter-Island owner Ken D’Attilio piloted the other chopper involved in the rubbish removal project.

He and Ingram carried loads ranging from 400 to 1,000 pounds. They hauled more than 14,000 pounds of trash from the valley by day’s end.

The project was semi-routine service work for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. The work is done yearly or as funding is available.

The trash is hauled out of the valley, dropped at Polihale and trucked to Kekaha Landfill, DLNR spokeswoman Laura Stevens said.

No state employees were aboard the aircraft when the crash occurred, she said.

Ingram said the combined work Wednesday filled two dump trucks with rubbish including old kayaks, tarps, tent poles, makeshift backpacks, plastic, pots and pans.

“Everything you can find at Wal-Mart was in that valley,” he said. “We have limited resources available to us on this island. We need to continue to live in our environments as efficiently as possible. Filling up Kalalau Valley with trash is not the means to get there.”

The April issue of National Geographic details the recent decline of the “magical valley with its folded cliffs and sinuous beach,” calling the vibe there “more frat party than nudist retreat.”

The article says bags of garbage, old coolers and discarded tents are strewed about the campsites and sea caves, waiting for work crews to haul them out by helicopter — the greatest expense for the cash-strapped park.

State parks administrator Dan Quinn says in the story that the key to managing Kalalau is getting more people to carry out what they carry in.

Inter-Island, which has been in business 22 years, is the only operator that can provide such service work, Ingram said.

“It’s not like flying those sight-seeing tours,” he said. “It requires a great amount of precision and attention.”

Based in Port Allen, the company supplements its commercial aerial tour business by maintaining a professional working relationship with various county and state agencies to perform search and rescue missions, fight fires and transport materials to remote sites.

“We’re going to continue to provide a public service,” Ingram said. “That’s what sets us apart.”

Inter-Island is on-call for emergency help 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We’re continuing operations as normal,” Ingram said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident. An agent who flew over from Honolulu Wednesday evening questioned Ingram and started compiling data.

Ingram said the National Transportation Safety Board has also contacted him.

FAA and NTSB officials did not return calls seeking comment at press time.

The damaged aircraft was removed from the Westside landing site to a secure location for further inspection, Ingram said.

“We just want to know what happened,” he said.

The chopper’s engine was shipped to a Rolls-Royce facility on the Mainland for a thorough inspection and testing.

There were two fatal helicopter accidents in a four-day period last year.

On March 11, 2007, an Inter-Island aircraft crashed at YMCA Camp Nauea in Ha‘ena, seriously injuring three people and killing one.

On March 8, 2007, a Heli-USA air tour killed four people, including the pilot, and critically injured three.

• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or neagle@kauaipubco.com

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