Weeks before a tour helicopter crashed onto a major street in Kailua, Hawaii Congressman Ed Case expressed concerns to federal aviation leaders about such craft flying virtually unrestricted above neighborhoods, national parks and other occupied areas.
The helicopters, which make dozens of daily local trips through the federally controlled airspace, are “virtually unregulated,” Case wrote in an April 4 letter to the Federal Aviation Administration.
“This current situation is unacceptable. Commercial air tour operators are not or should not be entitled to exact widespread and virtually unlimited disruption and risk as a result of their operations,” Case wrote to Raquel Girvin, the FAA’s Western-Pacific Regional Administrator. “There has been no material effort by operators to mitigate disruption and risk on a voluntary basis and none can be reasonably expected.”
The cause of Monday’s fatal crash, which dropped debris on some Kailua properties before the Robinson R44 helicopter slammed into Oneawa Street, remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. All three people on board were killed.
The Honolulu Medical Examiner on Tuesday identified the pilot as 28-year-old Joseph Berridge, who had arrived in Hawaii about two weeks earlier. One of the two female passengers was identified as Ryan McAuliffe, 28, of Chicago, Illinois. Identification of the third victim is pending, according to the city.
The medical examiner determined cause of death for all three victims to be multiple blunt force injuries sustained in the crash.
On Monday, Kailua Rep. Cynthia Thielen called for a ban on all such commercial flights until an investigation could be completed. Four state senators followed her lead Tuesday and made the same request.
Case said he and other locals have watched such helicopters routinely dip below their 1,500-foot altitude limit on clear, sunny days. Federal rules only allow those craft to dip lower for safety reasons such as poor visibility in clouds, his letter says.
Local tour companies conduct thousands of annual helicopter flights over Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala national parks without the federally required management plans in place for those air tours, Case said.
In a separate letter Tuesday, Case asked Girvin and the FAA to list any options to protect the public now and after the crash investigation wraps. He further asked Girvin to address Thielen’s request to halt the flights.
“Just one day after this tragedy which narrowly avoided impacting residences as well, tour helicopter operations are continuing throughout Hawaii, including overflights of residential and occupied areas,” Case wrote.