HONOPU BEACH — A witness to Tuesday morning’s ultralight crash said he heard the plane make two popping noises before it struck water at nearly 70 knots off the coast of a remote North Shore beach.
He and a friend then worked with a tour boat crew to pull the pilot and passenger from the wreckage, but they were already dead.
Kekaha resident Brad Pryor had been hanging out with four friends on Honopu Beach when he saw the small craft fly over the natural arch there, turn toward the sea and then the valley.
“It was obvious he didn’t have enough speed or altitude to clear the entrance of the valley,” Pryor said.
The pilot executed a 70 degree left-hand turn and the aircraft began to side slip and lose altitude.
“He rolled out and tried to pull out of the rate of descent that he was now in and you could tell the wing was stressed and you heard a loud pop,” Pryor said.
The craft did a sharp barrel roll to the right and pointed toward the water. As the pilot pulled up, Pryor said he heard another pop and the plane hit the water.
“There was a catamaran tour boat about 500 yards away from where the plane hit, so I immediately jumped into the water and started swimming as fast as I could to the crash,” Pryor said.
Borrowing a tourist’s snorkel mask, Pryor found the wreck in 15 to 20 feet of water and yelled to the boat’s captain for a line. His friend Clayton Hurd of Wailua assisted.
Pryor said he then swam down to the craft and tied the line — attached a pulley on the bow of the boat — and wrapped it around the nose wheel of the plane.
“There was so much fuel in the water that my skin was just burning,” he said.
A crew of five or six men pulled the plane just to the surface of the water, while Hurd and Pryor detached the bodies of the two men from their harnesses.
He described one as a heavy-set man, 55 to 60 years old with a beard. The other, who sat in the front seat, was clean shaven and estimated to be 38 to 40 years old.
“Neither of them appeared to have helmets on,” Pryor said.
The face of the older man, Pryor said, had been partially ripped loose and at least one of his limbs seemed to be broken. The other had a single puncture wound to the cheek.
Once on deck, people began to work on the men but it was too late. The wreck had occurred about 25 minutes prior.
“I thought everybody did the most they could and that I was glad to at least try to bring them back,” Pryor said. “But having impacted the water at that speed, I didn’t expect to find anyone conscious there.”
The identities of the two men will likely be released today after next of kin is notified, a county spokeswoman said.
Kaua‘i firefighters recovered the bodies from the tour boat and brought them ashore at about 2:10 p.m. A spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard said it sent a helicopter and 47-foot motor lifeboat to assist at the scene.
Company had perfect safety record until Tuesday crash
An employee of Kaua‘i Aerosports confirmed that the aircraft belonged to his company, but he chose not to comment.
According to the powered hang glider business’ website, Kaua‘i Aerosports offers introductory flight lessons over the island’s canyons, rivers, waterfalls and coastline.
“Geared for the first time flyer as well as the experienced aviator, let Kauai Aeropsorts introduce you to the marvelous and fastest growing sector of personal aviation in the country,” the site states. “Everyone gets to fly the plane before we’re finished!”
It is based out of the Port Allen Airport in Hanapepe. The company’s website also touts a “perfect safety record” on Kaua‘i and the Mainland for the past 25 years.
“For this reason we currently operate one aircraft and fly our clients one at a time,” it states.
Kaua‘i Aerosports flies a craft known as the P&M “Quik.” An employee at P&M AviationUSA in Cumming, Ga., described the Quik as a light sport aircraft.
Two people died in a similar incident Feb. 15 when a powered hang glider owned and flown by Jim Gaither of Big Sky Kaua‘i crashed off Glass Beach. As with that investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration will determine the cause of the crash. No new information on the status of the February crash was available in NTSB’s monthly Accident Database & Synopses. In March, a spokesman said it could take up to a year to complete the investigation.
Last year, The Associated Press reported that another two people died when a microlight aircraft crashed and sank in Kealakekua Bay off the Big Island. The victims in the April 21, 2010, accident were pilot Tedd Robert Hecklin, owner of Tedd’s Flying Adventures in Kailua-Kona, and passenger Kathryn Grace Moran of Kailua-Kona.
In a press release, Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. said he was saddened by the accident.
“Our hearts go out to the families of the victims,” he said. “We are grateful to those who assisted in the recovery of the victims and will stand ready to assist investigators as they determine the cause of this terrible accident.”