Kauai is the deadliest place in Hawaii for fatal helicopter crashes — nearly all of which are flights operated by tour companies — with a total of 26 people killed since Jan. 1, 2000.
The death toll on Kauai is higher than that of the entire rest of the state combined, where eight fatal crashes were recorded, killing 25.
Kauai has had more fatal crashes — seven — in that period than any other island. The next closest island total is for Molokai, which recorded three. Two fatal crashes, including one on Kauai and one near Honolulu, took 10 lives, making 2019 the deadliest year for helicopter tour fatalities in 20 years.
The figures for Kauai include the most recent disaster near Kokee, in which a craft operated by Safari Helicopters crashed into a ridge on Dec. 26, fell about 100 feet and caught fire, killing six passengers and the pilot. The cause is under investigation and the federal government’s National Transportation Safety Board has not released even preliminary cause data.
Safari Helicopters was not involved in any other fatal crashes. However, two tour operators were responsible for two fatal crashes. They are Blue Hawaiian Helicopters and Inter-Island Helicopters. The latter company is no longer in business. Neither of the two deadly crashes involving Blue Hawaiian and a company under whose name it also does business, Helicopter Consultants of Maui, occurred on Kauai, although Blue Hawaiian is a regular tour operator here.
Safari Helicopters did not respond to questions from The Garden Island. In response to two separate queries from the newspaper, a spokesperson for Blue Hawaiian said: “We respectfully decline to comment.”
The Hawaii Helicopter Association, a statewide trade group, also did not respond to specific questions about the concentration of helicopter crash fatalities on Kauai or the numbers of tour providers, helicopters and passenger counts either for Kauai or statewide. In an emailed statement, the association said: “there is a tremendous amount of false and misleading information being ‘reported’ at the moment.”
A lawmaker weighs in
Disclosure of the fatality counts for Hawaii brought reaction in several quarters within the aviation community and from U.S. Rep. Ed Case, a Honolulu Democrat who last week issued a statement sharply critical of federal government oversight of the helicopter tour industry.
On Friday, responding to the specific Kauai disclosures, Case said: “Increasing tour helicopter/small aircraft incidents including fatal crashes throughout Hawaii concern me greatly. I don’t know whether Kauai is more unsafe that the rest of Hawaii, but I do know that the industry is unsafe statewide and I believe that the most recent tragedy could well have happened on other islands.
“The National Transportation Safety Board has no direct regulatory authority and is doing all it can in recommending safety improvements. The Federal Aviation Administration, which does have direct regulatory authority, has not implemented all of NTSB’s recommendations, has publicly stated that it does not see any statewide industry safety concerns despite repeated incidents and has refused to consider implementing the same level of safety regulation on tour helicopter/small aircraft operations as on commercial aircraft,” Case said.
“The industry itself routinely violates various agreements such as minimum altitude requirements, generally conducts itself as if the public airspace is its own private property to do with whatever it wants, and does not view public safety and community disruption concerns as anything worth worrying about,” Case continued.
The FAA declined to comment on Friday and said it would respond directly to Case.
Statewide, the helicopter most commonly involved in fatal tourist crashes was the Airbus AS350, the same type of aircraft in which the seven people were killed on Kauai on Dec. 26. However, John Nance, a Seattle-based aviation expert for both ABC News and the television program “Good Morning America,” said it is premature to single out the Airbus AS350 in the Kokee crash because it is, far and away, the most widely used tour helicopter in the country.
“It’s like the Boeing 737,” Nance said, referring to the most widely produced airliner currently on the market. “There are so many of them.”
Nance said that, though he had never seen helicopter crash fatality statistics for Hawaii, he has heard within the aviation community “for 10 or 15 years” that Kauai is an unusually risky place for helicopter flying because of the island’s unique geography, with sheer rock mountain walls, and the island’s constantly changing microclimate meteorology, updrafts and downdrafts.
Nance said concerns about Kauai have been expressed periodically, “but privately,” within NTSB. NTSB did not respond to requests for comment on Nance’s observations.
The crash profile, Nance said, “is typical when you’ve got fleets working this hard,” meaning those of tour companies for which pilots make several flights a day, during which pilots are also expected to supply running commentary.
“In a routine day in/day out operation” on Kauai, Nance said, “I think (many pilots) think they know those ridgelines better than they actually do.” One of the highest risks in such situations, he said, is the chance for what aviation experts call “CFIT” — “controlled flight into terrain,” in which a pilot becomes disoriented and crashes, under power, directly into stationary obstacles. At least half of Kauai’s deadly helicopter crashes have involved pilots who apparently became disoriented, usually with weather as a factor.
Two of the Kauai fatal incidents occurred after the helicopters apparently fell apart in midair, according to NTSB reports.
Because the NTSB investigation into the Safari Helicopters disaster has just begun, there has been no preliminary conclusion about whether it fits into any pattern in which disoriented flying may be involved.
Tom Cress, a former Marine Corps helicopter pilot who now works as a helicopter accident investigator for the University of Southern California’s aviation safety program, said: “There’s got to be a lot of times in those crests in the Kokee area where you can get yourself sucked into a spot. The challenge in Napali is pretty significant. With the chance of the microclimate issue, you can get yourself back into the goo” in terms of quickly worsening weather.
Fatal Kauai crashes
The Kauai fatal crashes included these episodes:
w In the most recent episode on Dec. 26, the ill-fated Airbus helicopter left Lihue and, a half hour or so later, at 4:57 p.m., crashed into the mountainside at an altitude of about 2,900 feet, fell and caught fire. All six passengers and the pilot were apparently killed instantly. The NTSB has said nothing about weather conditions at the time of the crash;
w In March 2007, there were two fatal crashes on the North Shore within four days of one another. In the first, on March 8, an Airbus AS350 operated by Heli-USA Airways crashed at the Princeville Airport, killing four people and injuring one. The company is apparently no longer in business. The investigation revealed that a key component became disconnected from the helicopter’s transmission in flight, possibly due to severe wear exacerbated by poor maintenance. On March 11, a McDonnell Douglas helicopter operated by Inter-Island Helicopter, Inc., which is also no longer in business, crashed near Haena, killing one person and injuring three others seriously. The investigation found metal fatigue resulted in cracking of a key component due to a manufacturing defect;
w Dec. 25, 2005, a McDonnel Douglas utility helicopter flying a fire-suppression mission crashed at Lihue Airport, killing one person. The craft was operated by Smoky Mountain Helicopters, Inc. A 140-gallon bucket was attached to a 25-foot rope suspended beneath the craft. The NTSB attributed the crash to pilot error and inexperience in handling heavy external loads in flight;
w Sept. 23, 2005, an Airbus AS350, also owned by Heli-USA Airways, crashed near Haena, killing three people and injuring three, including the pilot. The NTSB blamed the crash on the pilot’s decision to continue flying in adverse weather conditions, losing control in a microburst;.
w Sept. 24, 2005, a Bell helicopter operated by Bali Hai Helicopter Tours crashed near Kalaheo, killing the pilot and all four passengers. The NTSB blamed “the pilot’s decision to continue flight…into an area of turbulent, reduced visibility weather conditions.” The NTSB faulted the pilot’s lack of experience with local weather conditions;
w July 23, 2003, another Bell helicopter, operated by Jack Harter Helicopters, crashed at Mt. Wailaleale after it approached the 5,000-foot rim at the summit under favorable weather conditions, but which quickly deteriorated and the aircraft crashed, killing all five people aboard. The NTSB blamed the pilot’s failure to maintain enough altitude to clear nearby terrain and faulted his “continued flight into adverse weather.”
An FAA spokesman noted that fatal crashes statewide had become less frequent since the mid-2000s, though there were two in 2019, including the one near Kokee and one in Honolulu. The spokesman said that FAA had become concerned about overall tour helicopter safety in Hawaii.
Ian Gregor, the spokesman, said: “One potential factor is that during the past decade-plus, we have held regular safety meetings with Hawaii air tour operators to stress the importance of basing every flight around safety. A big part of that is knowing what the weather conditions are and taking steps to avoid flying into bad weather.”
Fatal crashes on other islands included one in Kailua in April of 2019 in which a tour helicopter owned by United Helicopter Leasing, LLC, crashed after witnesses reported nearing a “loud bang,” after which the aircraft fell to the ground. The NTSB investigation is pending. Three people were killed. Also in 2019, wreckage was recovered from a crash that actually occurred in 2017 after an amateur pilot and a companion attempted a dangerous night flight on Molokai. Both men died.
On Oct. 16, 2017, a Robinson helicopter owned by an unidentified company, was operating on a training flight when it crashed, killing the instructor and a student pilot. The NTSB said weather might have been a factor, but no official cause has ever been determined. The helicopter sank after the accident.
On Feb. 18, 2016, an air tour helicopter operated by Genesis Helicopters crashed in Honolulu, killing one person, leaving three passengers with serious injuries and one with minor injuries. The NTSB found that a drift shaft had become disconnected because it had not been lubricated.
On Nov. 10, 2011, an Airbus EC 130 owned by Blue Hawaiian Helicopters crashed near Pukoo on Molokai, killing five people. The investigation concluded the pilot had failed to maintain sufficient altitude while operating in “marginal weather conditions.”
On June 15, 2003, a McDonnell Douglas tour craft owned by K&S Helicopters crashed near Volcano on Hawaii Island, killing four people. The NTSB blamed poor maintenance and mechanical problems.
On May 22, 2003, a commercial helicopter owned by Pacific Helicopter Tours crashed on an island near Maui, killing one person. The NTSB blamed mechanical factors.
On July 21, 2000, an Airbus 355 helicopter operated by Blue Hawaiian’s DBA, Helicopter Consultants of Maui, crashed near Kahului after it struck the upward face of a mountain at about 2,900 feet. The NTSB blamed weather-related factors and the pilot’s failure to maintain enough ground clearance in low ceiling conditions. Seven people were killed.
Longtime news reporter and retired communications executive Allan Parachini lives and makes furniture in Kilauea, and writes occasionally for The Garden Island.