- Special Projects
LIHUE, Kauai — The Federal Aviation Administration disclosed Monday that in 2010 it revoked the license of the pilot of the ill-fated Safari Helicopters tour that crashed on Kauai on Dec. 26, killing all seven people onboard, after he tested positive for drugs.
His license was restored a year later, but FAA inspector Joseph Monfort had concerns as recently as last year that the pilot’s performance had “deficiencies.” Monfort emerged last week as a whistleblower who alleged his supervisors interfered with his efforts to pursue enforcement actions against Safari Helicopters and Novictor Aviation in Hawaii.
The action against Safari pilot Paul Matero was one of 24 enforcement actions since 2000 the agency took against the four tour helicopter companies in Hawaii that had the most crashes over the past two decades, according to FAA records released to Civil Beat under the Freedom of Information Act.
Civil Beat sought enforcement action data for Safari; K&S Helicopters, which does business as Paradise Helicopters; Helicopter Consultants of Maui, which does business as Blue Hawaiian Helicopters; and Novictor Aviation.
The records show enforcement actions stopped after 2013 and no actions were taken at all against Novictor, which operated the helicopter that crashed last April in Kailua and killed all three people onboard.
The Matero action was one of two drug-related license revocations imposed by the FAA against Safari personnel. In 2007, the agency revoked the aircraft mechanic’s license of Aaron Moniz, after he, too, failed a drug test. Agency records show Moniz’s license was restored in 2010.
The agency said Matero became eligible to reapply for his private and commercial pilot certificates a year after the revocation and he got new licenses in June 2011.
The FAA said that under its procedures, Matero first had to apply for an interim medical clearance, which he received in 2011. It was upgraded to a full medical clearance in 2012. The FAA said that under agency policies, Matero was required to undergo treatment “for substance abuse and
In all, the FAA records identified five enforcement actions against Safari, from 2000 to 2013. In one other, the FAA took no action while it issued correction letters in two others.
Safari Helicopters’ owner, Preston Myers, did not return calls seeking comment. It was not possible to determine if Moniz still works for the company. Civil Beat was also unable to contact anyone at Sunshine Helicopters.
However, an Ohio-based public relations firm that said it represents Safari released a statement Tuesday confirming that Matero was reinstated to his position at Safari in 2011. The statement said: “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 records also show FAA enforcement actions from 2000 to 2013 against Paradise Helicopters, ranging in severity from no action ultimately taken to a 120-day suspension of the license of one of its pilots after he allowed the helicopter he was flying to run out of fuel and crash. The incident occurred near Hilo in July 2013.
The MD369 helicopter sustained substantial damage when it landed hard and rolled over. A skid collapsed. Neither the pilot, Kyuwon Lee, nor any of his four passengers, was injured, according to a report of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB declined to comment on the new FAA documents received by Civil Beat.
The board has called on the FAA to provide stricter oversight of tour aviation companies for years. In June, NTSB officials criticized the FAA for weak regulations after a skydiving plane crashed in Mokuleia and killed 11 people.
Records for Sunshine Helicopters include 13 enforcement actions from 2002 to 2013, including suspensions of the licenses of three pilots, who were unnamed, and fines assessed against four unnamed other pilots.
The suspensions ranged from 15 to 30 days and the fines from $1,000 to $2,500. The FAA records attributed all but one of the actions to “maintenance” issues, which were not identified.
There was only one minor action against Blue Hawaiian, involving a warning related to flight operations in 2013.
At Paradise Helicopters, Calvin Dorn, the company’s president, speculated that the absence of enforcement actions against his company after 2013 coincided with its decision to hire a full-time safety officer.
But he also said that the FAA’s safety inspector workforce for Hawaii appears to have undergone significant attrition during the same period, declining from what he believes was “four or five” inspectors to two.
The FAA disputed that estimate and said its Honolulu office currently has seven safety inspectors and is trying to hire four more. A spokesperson said the agency transitioned in about 2015 to a system that uses a more multifaceted approach to “identify the most effective means to address non-compliance with the regulations.”
Under this new system, he said, “the FAA uses tools like training or documented improvements to procedures to ensure compliance.”
In the case of Hawaii air tour operators, the spokesman said the FAA has pushed for voluntary compliance with “a set of policies and processes that enables operators to identify potential hazards in their operations, assess the risks from those hazards, implement measures to address those risks and ensure those measures are effective.”
Dorn said Paradise was founded in 1999 and grew rapidly until 2013, and, in the process, experienced what he called “growing company syndrome.”
“We matured as a company and had much better record keeping and fully embraced the safety program,” he said.
Dorn was particularly positive about his company’s work with Monfort, the FAA inspector who came to prominence in the nationwide controversy over helicopter safety.
A report by the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee detailed actions Monfort said his superiors took to thwart his ability to regulate the two companies. In particular, the report said, Monfort was forbidden to travel to Kauai to conduct an inspection at Safari when he concluded after going on a check ride with Matero that the pilot’s performance had “deficiencies.”
Monfort told investigators he had made attempts to come to Kauai to check on Safari and Matero in September and November of last year.
Dorn credited the inspector with improvements in safety performance by Paradise.
“I worked with Joe Monfort for a number of years,” Dorn said. “He was not the easiest. He held us to a very high standard. He worked toward making sure we met or exceeded standards.”
Another possible explanation may be that 2013 was the year in which the federal government underwent a massive budget “sequestration” in which the FAA furloughed air traffic controllers and safety inspectors. Its budgets have struggled in the intervening years.
In 2017, Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, alluded to the lingering effects of the budget sequestration and budget cuts in years after 2013 as having seriously damaged the FAA’s safety program.
His testimony before the U.S. House Transportation Committee was similar to positions articulated by the union in testimony before a U.S. Senate committee last year and today on its website.
The organization says it “believes that the most serious challenge facing the FAA … today is the absence of a stable, predictable funding stream. The most recent illustration … occurred from Dec. 22, 2018-Jan. 25, 2019 when the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history ended after 35 days. That shutdown was tremendously harmful.”
Dorn said the public has become hypersensitive to problems in the helicopter aviation industry as a result of a spate of crashes, including 10 in the last two years in Hawaii that killed 10 people.
He said the crash last month in Los Angeles of a chartered helicopter carrying former NBA star Kobe Bryant, in which nine people died, has further intensified public scrutiny of helicopter flying.
“The crashes involving Safari and Kobe Bryant may look as if (people) have a way of knowing why something happened,” he said. “But there are always more factors involved and we can be jumping to conclusions. We are not just a bunch of cowboys. Our people all live here. We’re a local company.”
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