LIHUE — The pilot of the helicopter that went down near Koke‘e a month ago had his license revoked by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2010 for drug use but was issued new certifications a year later and rehired after completing a substance abuse treatment program.
FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor said Tuesday that in June 2010, the administration revoked the medical, commercial pilot and flight instructor certificates of former Safari Helicopter pilot Paul Matero, who died along with all six passengers aboard the sightseeing tour helicopter that crashed into a cliff on Dec. 26.
After a mandatory one-year waiting period, Matero applied for and received new licenses, according to Gregor.
On June 30, 2011, the FAA issued him commercial and private pilots licenses along with “special-issuance” medical certificates, which Gregor said are valid for short periods of time, allowing the administration to require pilots to show they are continuing to address their condition.
Matero’s conditional certificates expired in March 2012, at which time the FAA gave him back his standard permit, something Gregor said is only done for pilots who fail drug tests after they complete a substance abuse treatment program and “demonstrate sobriety for an extended period.”
Safari’s owner, Preston Myers, declined to comment directly on the matter— the company recently hired communications firm Dix and Eaton to handle media inquiries — but a spokesperson said Matero was rehired and placed back on flight duty after getting his license back in 2011.
The Safari spokesperson said Tuesday that Matero flew around 5,000 hours in compliance with federal regulations since that time but did not respond to questions about the decision to reinstate a pilot suffering from addiction only a year after he failed a drug test.
FAA records provided to The Garden Island on Tuesday show Safari Helicopters was cited five times between 2000 and 2010.
In May 2000, the Safari violated five federal regulations related to aircraft maintenance records and requiring aircraft that have undergone maintenance to get appropriate authorization before returning to flight. In 2005, Safari was cited for violating hazardous material regulations.
A mechanic failed a drug test a few months after the company was cited for its maintenance records. The FAA took no administrative action in that case. Another Safari mechanic, Aaron Moniz, had his license revoked in 2005 after a failed drug test. He was issued a mechanics certification in 2010 and does not have a current pilots license, according to FAA records.
TGI has requested full reports from the FAA detailing Safari’s federal violations.
In 2001 Myers, then a pilot, as well as owner of Safari Helicopters, was preparing to take off in the very same helicopter that went down in December, when he suddenly lost control of the machine during routine preflight checks while still on the ground at Lihue Airport, according to National Transportation Safety Board records.
In the NTSB pilot accident report, Myers said the helicopter suddenly “became airborne in nose low altitude.” He tried to pull the aircraft around to face the wind and attempted to take off, hoping to pick up speed and regain control of the aircraft.
The helicopter responded by tilting back and to the side, immediately going into, what Myers described as, “a figure 8 type of oscillation,” with the nose rapidly pitching up and down “in extreme, almost-wing-over attitudes.” The helicopter’s rotors and tail were badly damaged in the crash but it was repaired and returned to flight.
“Safari Helicopters remains committed to complete and thorough implementation of all regulations. We also continue to support and participate in the NTSB investigation of this recent tragic loss,” the statement from Safari said on Tuesday. “The FAA and its inspectors have been and remain welcome at Safari at any time of their choosing.”
This story has been edited to reflect accuracy.