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Last month’s deadly helicopter crash in a crowded Kailua neighborhood has spurred federal and state lawmakers to examine whether the local air tour industry needs stronger regulations for safety and quality of life.
The FAA and local tour operators are updating the Hawaii Air Tour Common Procedures manual for the first time in more than 10 years. The manual, the sole regulator of the state’s tour flight industry, restricts how low air tours can fly over different parts of the islands when the weather’s overcast, but little else.
But community members, who’ve voiced their complaints about the noise from helicopters for decades, won’t be part of the process.
Last year, the Legislature called for federal officials to revise the local flight manual via House Concurrent Resolution 177.
It wouldn’t make sense for members of the public with no safety expertise to weigh in, local tour operators say. Furthermore, there aren’t many revisions to make given the limited area and routes across the nation’s lone island state, they added.
But the manual’s revision — and Hawaii’s air tour industry in general — has seen more scrutiny following the crash. A Novictor-owned Robinson R44 helicopter partially broke apart in mid-air during a tour flight on April 29, slamming into one of the town’s busiest streets and killing all three people aboard.
No one on the ground was hurt and federal investigators are still examining what caused the crash. Tour operators say they’re not aware of any crashes in Hawaii that have killed or injured people on the ground.
Operators are feeling that heat, and some have changed their flight routes across Windward Oahu away from Kailua town following the crash. Novictor’s owner, Nicole Vandelaar, has stepped away as the helicopter association’s chairwoman so that she can address her company’s crash, members say.
Meanwhile, the Hawaii flight manual issue shows how residents on the ground are given few outlets to have their say — and vent their frustration — unless they form grassroots community round tables such as the one created on the Big Island last year.
In fact, it’s not clear whether the FAA provides for any public input on tour flights as part of its regulatory process.
“It is not acceptable that this manual update which will have far-reaching consequences on the public (a) excludes the public from participation and (b) appears to be effectively controlled by the operators,” Rep. Ed Case wrote to FAA Regional Administrator Raquel Girvin in an April 4 letter.
Case demanded that the draft procedures manual be circulated for public comment.
In a statement Tuesday, the FAA said it can’t support that request.
Typically, Hawaii’s tour helicopters can’t fly lower than 1,500 feet above the ground, although the procedures manual allows them to fly lower in certain areas when the weather’s bad. On Oahu, the state’s most heavily populated island, there’s hardly any place to deviate lower except right off shore.
Case said he and others routinely track tour helicopters violating those rules.
“Historically, the issue has been the noise,” state Sen. Laura Thielen said in a recent interview. “What we were stressing was … we need to be approaching this from a safety perspective.”
She and other Hawaii lawmakers are trying to gather more details on the flight tour industry and its trends so they might convince the FAA to enact tougher restrictions.
Those details are still cloudy.
Some 15 tour companies currently operate helicopters out of nine state-run airports across four islands. It’s not clear how many other local operators there might be.
Nor is it clear how many total tour helicopters operate in Hawaii or how many flights those craft make each day. The companies aren’t required to log flight plans when they take off and most guard that proprietary data to avoid sharing it with competitors. Any anonymous data that federal regulators collect is voluntary, they add.
Whatever the total numbers, the moment those helicopters’ skids leave the ground they enter the exclusive jurisdiction of the FAA, officials say, leaving the county and state governments powerless to hold them in check on behalf of the communities those craft regularly fly over.
“I think the entire regulatory scheme is broken,” Case said in a recent interview.
Tour operators don’t have to report noise complaints to the FAA, according to a March 13 Congressional Research Service memorandum. The public doesn’t have access to the complaints that local operators collect in their database.
No regulations prohibit them from flying over crowded, populated areas, the memorandum states.
Local tour operators maintain they can effectively police themselves — they investigate community complaints through their “fly neighborly” program. It’s in their best interest to maintain good relations with the islands’ local communities, they said.
When pilots fly too close to residential areas “my phone rings,” said Casey Riemer, a manager with Jack Harter Helicopters on Kauai.
Pilots who violate flight restrictions don’t last very long in the local tour companies, Paradise Helicopters CEO Calvin Dorn said.
Nonetheless, those relations have reached a breaking point in some communities, most notably in Puna on the Big Island, where the population spiked in the past decade.
“We’ve had areas that didn’t have houses that now have more houses,” Dorn said.
Dorn added that he doesn’t think the public should participate in the procedures manual update as long as it’s for safety.
“It’s a slippery slope to just open everything up to everybody” including locals who want to eliminate the tours entirely, he said.
Further, Dorn doesn’t think it would make sense to give state and local governments some control over the airspace. The move would make it difficult to fly across different jurisdictions, he said.
At least two of the companies on Oahu have altered their normal route up the Windward Coast. Instead of flying along the border of Kawainui Marsh and Kailua town — near where the Novictor R44 crashed — they now hug the Koolau range and fly over Maunawili.
“We’re trying to get the heat off right now,” Magnum Helicopters owner Richard Schuman said. “We’ve basically moved the noise.”
That might leave some Maunawili residents peeved, but operators are trying to better spread the noise around so no one neighborhood is inundated, Schuman said.
According to the Hawaii Helicopter Association’s own website, the state’s tour-flight industry directly supports 860 families and contributes more than $149 million to the local economy.
Vandelaar, Novictor’s founder and CEO, recently stepped away from leading the association so that she could address the crash, according to Dorn, who’s also a member of the association.
Vandelaar did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Other local tour companies raised concerns about the hours in which Novictor operates and how that reflects on their industry as a whole.
“She is not the right person to be representing the association at this time,” said Schuman, who also recently joined the group.
Novictor often books earlier flights to accommodate passengers, heading out across the Windward side before 8 a.m., both Dorn and Schuman said.
Novictor flies Robinson R44 model helicopters — four-passenger helicopters that are generally smaller and less expensive than the turbine-engine models other Oahu operators use.
Six-passenger helicopters make up roughly 85 percent of the local tour-flight market, Schuman said. Because Novictor’s vehicles carry fewer passengers they often run more daily flights than other operators, he said.
The pilots who fly for Novictor are typically less experienced and some use the company as a career “stepping stone” to fly more expensive helicopters for other local commercial operators, Dorn and Schuman said.
That includes their own companies. “We’ve hired from Novictor,” Dorn said Monday.
Other than the April 29 crash, Novictor has had at least three other emergency incidents involving its R44s since March 2018, records show.
In October, one of the helicopters crashed into the Kaneohe Bay sandbar when the pilot blacked out twice and slumped over, prompting the front-seat passenger to grab the controls and slow the descent before impact.
“The pilot remembers being in a dream-like state during the loss of consciousness, and in the dream-like state, he was piloting the helicopter and knew that he was in an emergency situation,” the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report stated.
Three people were seriously injured in the crash.
One month earlier, another Novictor helicopter encountered engine problems and sustained “substantial damage” in an emergency landing in Wahiawa, according to NTSB’s aviation accident database. It was listed as a personal flight, not a tour. Three people were on board and none was injured.
On March 26, 2018, a Novictor helicopter made a precautionary landing at Koko Head Neighborhood Park, next to an elementary school, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. The pilot didn’t specify what prompted the landing, but his three passengers told the paper they were OK.
The incident is not listed in the NTSB’s accident database. An NTSB didn’t respond to questions about why it’s not listed.
Hawaii has seen at least 10 helicopter accidents in the past two years, that database shows, with half of those involving R44s. The causes vary.
In November, for example, an R44 made an emergency landing on Kauai when a sightseer lost her phone out the window and it struck the tail rotor, causing serious damage.
Not all of the state’s helicopter accidents involved tour flights, however.
The state’s most recent fatal accident before Kailua was an October 2017 training flight that crashed in waters off of Molokai. It occurred in an R44 owned by another Oahu-based operator, Mauna Loa Helicopters, that took off from Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Schuman said he believes the R44s are safe but that “in the wrong hands you’re going to get the wrong results.”
Case, meanwhile, said he’s considering drafting legislation that would compel the FAA to seek public input for Hawaii’s air tour procedures.
Giving the manual to the air tour operators exclusively to revise is “like the fox guarding the chicken coop,” he said. “My full expectation is that that manual will address community concerns.”
Case said he also plans to seek allies from Congress’ Quiet Skies Caucus, which consists of about 40 House members mainly trying to deal with noisy airports in their districts. The caucus currently isn’t very active but it could help, he said.
Kailua resident Josiah Lewis said he would support any legislation that bars the helicopters from flying over residential areas. Lewis’ girlfriend lives about a block from where the Novictor helicopter crashed.
“I saw the scene — it does give concern,” Lewis, a Windward native, said while sitting at her house next to Oneawa Street about a week after the crash. “It’s always busy. It’s packed. And you know, they’re lucky it didn’t go down at the time of it being busy over here.”
“Over here, everything’s scrunched in. That pilot was a damn good pilot if he was able to land it right where he did,” Lewis said. “I give him props for that. But I don’t give him props for flying over here.”
Check out the 2008 flight manual maps of how low Hawaii air tours can fly in different parts of the islands during bad weather here:
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