The owner of an Oahu helicopter tour company fired back at U.S. Rep. Ed Case’s blanket criticism of the industry following a helicopter crash that killed seven last week on Kauai.
Richard Schuman, president of Schuman Aviation Co., took issue with Case painting the entire industry as unsafe.
“It’s amazing politicians can say whatever they want and not back it up,” he told reporters at a press conference Friday.
Case, in response to Schuman, doubled down on his stance Friday afternoon.
“If Hawaii’s tour helicopter/small aircraft industry does not view twenty-one tragic deaths in one year alone as any safety concern, if it believes widespread public concern is not important, then we have a much much larger problem,” the congressman said in a written statement regarding deaths from helicopter crashes as well as a skydiving plane on Oahu.
Schuman Aviation Co. is the parent company of Magnum Helicopters and Makani Kai Air, both based on Oahu.
Following the deadly Safari Helicopters crash Dec. 26, Case criticized the industry, saying it is “incapable of self-regulation.”
Schuman spent about an hour railing against Case while explaining to reporters how his company follows safety standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration. A search of investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board showed no results in the past two decades for Schuman’s Makani Kai Air, Magnum Helicopters or Hawaii Aviation Services.
Still, 51 people have died in tour helicopter crashes in the state since 2000, according to NTSB data.
To put things into perspective, Schuman provided state Department of Health data on deaths in Hawaii between 2014 and 2018. There were five, or about 0.1% of all deaths. In the same time, the tour helicopter industry in Hawaii transported 2 million passengers, Schuman said.
“No number (of deaths) is acceptable,” he said. “Zero is what every operator, especially tour operators, are trying to do. Absolute zero.”
Schuman presented a slideshow, with statements made by the congressman about tour helicopters along with his rebuttals to them.
Tour helicopters are required to fly at 1,500 ft. or higher and aren’t allowed to fly at night. Schuman said low-flying helicopters, or those that pass over neighborhoods at night, likely aren’t from tour companies.
Another criticism from Case has been the FAA doesn’t follow recommendations made to it by the NTSB, the federal group that investigates crashes. Schuman said that is untrue.
For example, tour companies installed altimeters in their helicopters and now observe height rules, he said.
“I’ve been here 20 years, and the FAA has done a super job,” Schuman said.
Case has recently called for stronger regulations of the tour helicopter industry. While holding up hefty volumes of binders and books, Schuman said that Hawaii’s helicopter industry is one of the most heavily regulated.
Case has introduced legislation for stricter noise requirements on tour operators, as well as requiring tour pilots to observe the “sterile cockpit rule,” which says pilots must focus on flying the aircraft and not also act as a tour guide.
Schuman says that pilots, if flying at the proper height, shouldn’t be in danger of losing control while also giving a tour from the cockpit.
He attributed the increase in the number of flights to the increase in tourists overall.
He wouldn’t comment directly on the Kauai crash, or speculate what could have caused it.
Federal investigators are now moving the wreckage to a secure location for further examination, the NTSB said. It’s not yet clear what caused the crash. A full report isn’t expected for another year or two.
When asked if he called Case to express any of his concerns, Schuman said he had not, but did speak to him at an unrelated event to say he’d be happy to talk.
“I told him I’d love to meet him and talk to him from the inside about what’s going on in our industry to prevent these things,” he said. “I just don’t think it fits his narrative. But I’m willing.”
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell