- Special Projects
In Hawaii, 2019 was the deadliest year for tour helicopters in nearly two decades, with 10 people dying in two crashes, a Civil Beat review of federal records shows.
The year ended with a Dec. 28 crash on Kauai, when an Airbus helicopter operated by Safari Helicopters crashed into a steep rock face, dropped 100 feet and caught fire, killing the pilot and six passengers.
And the total number of tour helicopter crashes, both fatal and non-fatal, has escalated during the last two years. There were six crashes in 2018 and four crashes in 2019. Only one previous year — 2007 — had as many as four crashes during the last 20 years, according to National Transportation Safety Board records.
Meanwhile, Hawaii Department of Transportation records based on self-reporting by individual companies show that the number of tour operators in Hawaii has more than doubled in the last 10 years and flight volumes have increased by nearly 67% in the same period.
The recent spate of crashes, which are among 38 accidents and 45 fatalities since 2000, has brought new scrutiny to the helicopter tour industry. Weather-related, mechanical or faulty maintenance causes have been identified in nearly all of the crashes.
Vocal critics like U.S. Rep. Ed Case and state Sen. Laura Thielen are pushing for action to address safety and noise concerns. Case is seeking legislation that would implement stronger regulations and force the Federal Aviation Administration to give chopper operations the same scrutiny received by airlines.
“The hard statistics on rapid acceleration of Hawai’i tour helicopter operations only confirm what we already know: these operations have become a major safety risk and community disruption throughout all parts of Hawai’i,” Case said in an email this week. “Absent effective regulation, we can only expect these safety risks and community disruption to continue to accelerate.”
Richard Schuman, owner of Schuman Aviation, pushed back hard against Case’s portrayal of the industry as unsafe and in need of stronger federal regulations in the wake of the Kauai crash. He said his company already complies with FAA standards.
“No number (of deaths) is acceptable,” Schuman said at a press conference in January. “Zero is what every operator, especially tour operators, are trying to do. Absolute zero.”
He didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.
To get a fuller picture of the industry’s safety record, Civil Beat reviewed NTSB reports on the 38 accidents in the last two decades.
The records don’t provide a way to determine the relative safety or long-term trends in the tourist helicopter industry, since there is no information available to compare the number of crashes with total flying time.
The data does offer a detailed window into the frequency and causes of crashes:
• Since 2000, 11 of the 38 crashes involved fatalities. Kauai had more fatalities than other islands, with 25 people killed. Oahu and Hawaii Island each had four fatalities. There were seven killed on Maui and five on Molokai.
• 45 people have died and another 40 have been injured in Hawaii helicopter tour crashes.
• The number of crashes fluctuates significantly, with zero crashes reported in four of the last 10 years.
• Investigators blamed eight of the 38 incidents on weather-related factors. The weather-related incidents account for 25 deaths. Many of the rest were attributed to mechanical causes, although it was unclear if weather was a secondary factor in some.
Indeed weather appears to have been a factor in the deadly Kauai crash.
An NTSB preliminary report released earlier in January did not draw conclusions about the cause of the latest Kauai crash. However, it noted that a witness who heard “a hovering helicopter followed by a high pitched whine” just before the crash reported there was only about “20 feet of visibility in rain and fog” at the witness’s location about 1.5 miles from the crash site.
None of the helicopter companies contacted by Civil Beat — Blue Hawaiian, Sunshine, Paradise and Safari Helicopters — answered repeated requests for interviews or information.
The Helicopter Association of Hawaii, which represents eight tour operators, refused to respond to questions about the industry, such as the number of tour operators in the state or fleet sizes.
Together, the crashes reviewed by Civil Beat portray an industry facing a broad array of challenges, from dangers created by the vagaries of weather conditions throughout Hawaii, to mechanical failures, maintenance shortcomings and pilot error.
At least two of the crashes involved helicopters with manufacturing defects, including potentially fire-prone fuel tanks.
Limited flight technology is also cited in many NTSB accident reports. The recent preliminary report on the Kauai crash noted the helicopter lacked electronic flight tracking equipment.
The NTSB also said the pilot, Paul Matero, 69, was on his eighth flight of the day when the crash occurred.
Stan Rose, executive director of the Tour Operators Program of Safety and the Helicopter Safety Alliance – two national trade groups — said safety culture remains a major challenge for tour helicopter companies, where pilots and maintenance personnel are under great pressure to keep aircraft flying.
“It’s a tough business,” Rose said. “There is no rule that says the fickle finger of fate strikes equally over all companies.
“With all helicopters, we are managing risk. The biggest predictor is a safety culture in the organization where everyone is pointed toward the safety model. Back in the old days, you often judged your pilots on who was willing to fly that extra mile. The culture changed over time. Now, we recommend using a flight-risk evaluation tool. It’s the pilot and it’s the company.”
The accidents in Hawaii since 2000 involved 16 different operators, of which at least four are believed to be no longer in business.
Using online search resources and records of the Hawaii Department of Transportation, Civil Beat identified 18 tour operators that appear to offer services somewhere in the state. Seven are believed to be among the state’s largest tour operators and have had at least two crashes, but several apparently small operators have reported no tour accidents.
Ten crashes involved a single tour operator, Paradise Helicopters, also known as K&S Helicopters Inc., based in Kailua-Kona with operations on Hawaii Island and Oahu. Four people died in a single Paradise crash in 2003.
Another five crashes, with 12 dead and nine injured, have involved aircraft operated by Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, also known as Helicopter Consultants of Maui LLC, with operations throughout the state. Four more crashes have involved Sunshine Helicopters Inc., which also operates on several different islands.
In one particularly bizarre incident in October 2018, a pilot flying on Oahu for Novictor Aviation lost consciousness twice during a flight and was awoken by rescue personnel after the craft crashed onto a sandbar. A passenger softened the landing by taking over the controls to slow the descent.
“The pilot remembers being in dream-like state during his loss of consciousness,” the NTSB report reads, “and in the dream-like state he was piloting the helicopter and knew that he was in an emergency situation.” Three people suffered serious injuries in the crash.
Novictor was also the operator of the helicopter that crashed in Kailua on Oahu in April of last year, killing all three people aboard after parts of the craft fell off in mid-air. The helicopter caught fire on impact. NTSB’s final report indicating the cause has not been released.
The overwhelming majority of the crashes reviewed by Civil Beat involved three manufacturers, including 16 built by Airbus; 13 by MD Helicopters and four by Robinson Helicopter.
Two of the Novictor crashes involved a controversial Robinson model known as the R44 manufactured by Robinson with an extensive record of catching fire. At one point the company issued a safety directive advising pilots and passengers to wear fireproof clothing.
Civil Beat contacted all three manufacturers for comment on the performance of their aircraft. None responded.
Rick Fried, a Honolulu lawyer who has litigated helicopter accidents for more than 20 years, said none of what Civil Beat found in its review surprised him.
Among Fried’s cases was a 2016 accident on Kauai in which an Airbus helicopter flown by Blue Hawaiian crashed on a beach near Hanalei. A young Texas physician, Dr. Lindsey Hicks, sustained injuries that left her a paraplegic, Fried said. Her boyfriend, her parents and another unrelated passenger were also hurt.
According to the NTSB report, the pilot was flying in clear weather when the engine failed at about 1,300 feet in the air. FAA regulations for Hawaii generally require tour flights to operate at an altitude of at least 1,500 feet. The case is ongoing.
“Every island has specific problems,” Fried said. “More than 50% of my cases are due to flying into something that the pilot thinks is a cloud, but turns out to be a mountain. If we eliminated the pilot error, the number of helicopter crashes in Hawaii would go down by more than 50%.
“Basically, they just have to exercise better judgment.”
A second lawyer with experience litigating Hawaii tour helicopter crashes believes maintenance problems are particularly acute in many of the crashes.
Floyd Wisner, who represented victims in the 2007 Kauai crash of an Airbus helicopter operated by the defunct Heli-USA tour company said of Hawaii crashes he has handled: “It is usually a combination of pilot error and some kind of malfunction. What bothers me is that, every time there is a crash like this, there’s a promise of more oversight, then, damnit, the same thing happens again.”
The 2007 NTSB report on the Heli-USA incident, in which four people were killed, observed that: “Examination of the company maintenance program revealed that none of the mechanics at the helicopter’s base had received factory training and that the maintenance manuals they used were three revisions out of date.”
It also said “Mandatory quality control inspections of maintenance actions, as well as post-maintenance test flights described in the General Operator’s Manual and the manufacturer’s maintenance manuals were not performed.”
The report found that part of the drive mechanism connected to the transmission became disconnected because a mechanic had failed to sufficiently tighten a critical nut.
The NTSB reports of many other incidents are also riddled with references to metal fatigue, inadequate lubrication and cracking of critical components.
For example, the investigation of a 2016 crash of a Bell helicopter operated by the now-defunct company, Genesis Helicopters, found a key component of a drive shaft had apparently not been lubricated.
In the 2016 incident, which was covered extensively in the media at the time, the pilot initiated an emergency landing, but changed direction because people were standing in his intended landing path. The helicopter landed in the water and turned over. One teenaged passenger was killed and four others were injured.
The NTSB concluded that grease was not applied to the forward coupling and that some of the work described as being done was never recorded in records. It also found that the company owner, a rated mechanic, wasn’t present when the drive shaft was removed for maintenance.
NTSB also took the unusual step of faulting the Federal Aviation Administration, the chief regulatory agency for the entire aviation industry. The NTSB noted that “although the FAA was conducting oversight in accordance with their guidance, increased inspections may have uncovered the inadequate maintenance and documentation, which, in turn, might have prevented the accident.”
At the time, the FAA released a statement saying: “Safety is the FAA’s top priority, and the FAA’s air tour regulations include requirements that are specific to Hawaii operations. The agency conducts random and regular surveillance on all Hawaii air tour operators, and ensures companies address any issues we may find.
While we are always looking for possible trends, we have not identified current issues of concern that are applicable to the industry statewide.”
Tour helicopter operations are regulated by the FAA, which sets broad policies and has specific requirements for Hawaii ranging from altitudes at which helicopters can fly and filing of tour flight plans. The state of Hawaii and counties have no regulatory power over the industry.
Hawaii Department of Transportation data, which was provided by the agency to Oahu State Sen. Laura Thielen in July 2019, shows the monthly volume of flights by helicopter tours has been rising steadily in Hawaii since 2010.
In 2005, 17 tour operators statewide supplied data to HDOT showing there were 6,086 tour landings in March of that year. The total dropped to 4,938 for March, 2010 but has since risen to 7,003 in March, 2015 and 8,246 landings in March, 2019. Flight volumes from Lihue Airport on Kauai were the highest in the state.
Thielen, who represents the Kailua area, has long criticized the impact of tourism flights over neighborhoods and pressed for stronger regulation of the industry.
“It’s common sense that there will be more helicopter accidents when there are large increases in the number of helicopter tours in our skies,” she wrote in an email Wednesday.
“Unregulated helicopter tours are a nuisance and safety issue for people on the ground, a safety issue for the tourists booking flights, and in cases of choppers flying low over the Arizona Memorial and cultural sites in our national and state parks, disrespecting our cultural sites.”
FAA helicopter ownership records frequently make it difficult to determine how many helicopters an individual tour company has in its fleet because so many of the aircraft are leased.
Ownership records show that many helicopters have been owned by several different leasing and tour operators across the country. One helicopter in the crash sequence Civil Beat reviewed, in particular, had logged many years in both Hawaii and Alaska — two of the harshest environments for helicopters in the United States.
Limited ownership records in an FAA database show 14 helicopters in the Paradise Helicopters fleet, 10 in Sunshine Helicopters fleet and five owned by Safari Helicopters, whose craft crashed on Kauai in late December.
Houston helicopter litigation attorney Ryan Macleod said he finds the differences in the safety culture between commercial airlines and helicopter tour operators troubling.
“What you find in the helicopter tour industry is a crucial decision has to be made (on the question): Is this helicopter safe to fly today? They want to keep flying these helicopters. The problem is the helicopter is an incredibly precise machine. When it comes to maintenance, they’re not spotting the red flags. Most of these (helicopter tour operators) are doing in-house maintenance.”
He thinks there needs to be more oversight and regulation of the helicopter companies.
“These conversations can’t just be had in side offices. There needs to be public conversations” about safety issues, he said. “This self-governance of helicopters has to stop.”
Studies have shown that when local journalism disappears, government financing costs go up, fewer people run for public office, elected officials become less responsive to their constituents, and voter turnout decreases. Our small nonprofit newsroom works hard every day to present local news in a deep and transparent way, without fear or favor. We also rely on donations from readers like you to keep us afloat. The more support we receive; the stronger, more sustainable our journalism becomes; the more accountable we are to you. Please consider supporting our Honolulu Civil Beat with a tax-deductible gift.