Several glider operators offer scenic air tours to paying customers on the North Shore. Some of those flights rely on engine-powered planes to tow the engineless gliders into the sky.
Still, they’re not required to seek the same federal approvals as helicopter and airplane operators who fly similar tours in Hawaii and other scenic parts of the nation.
Now, after inquiries by Civil Beat about the regulations that cover the glider tours, Federal Aviation Administration officials say they’re re-examining whether such tours should be subject to the same certification. Specifically, they’re examining whether the gliders should have those requirements when they use airplanes to get aloft.
The scrutiny follows the Feb. 22 crash of a plane used to tow gliders at Dillingham Airfield, killing two veteran Hawaii pilots. It was the latest in a spate of fatal air tour and skydiving crashes to occur in Hawaii in the past year, leaving a total of 23 people dead.
The single-engine Cessna was neither towing a glider nor conducting an air tour last month when it crashed. One of the crash victims, Rick Rogers, was completing his training to fly the plane solo and tow future glider flights, according to tenants at the airfield.
The towplane was owned by one of the gliding operators based at the airfield, Honolulu Soaring Club.
“We are looking into the activities that the soaring club is advertising on its website,” the FAA said in a statement sent last week from agency spokesman Ian Gregor.
Not all glider operations rely on planes to tow the gliders aloft, however. Some use what’s known as a “winch tow” or even a tow by automobile to launch them in the air instead. Others may use their own motor on board.
Hawaii Glider Sailplane Academy exclusively uses a winch launch, said Brian Neff, manager of the Mokuleia-based company. Thus, it’s not clear that the FAA review would affect its operation.
Acroflight, meanwhile, uses both airplanes and a winch tow, according to Suzy Gromacki, whose husband, Steve Lowry, owns the company.
Gromacki said about 15% of Acroflight’s glider flights are tours. The company’s flights are fundamentally different than the commercial tours offered in helicopters and airplanes because they only cruise about five miles away from the airfield, as far as Kaena Point, before returning, she added.
Honolulu Soaring declined to comment on the federal agency’s scrutiny. A company representative referred all questions about tour regulations to the FAA officials who oversee its operation.
None of the Oahu glider companies that charge for scenic flights have what’s known as a “letter of authorization” from the FAA for air tours. Still, it remains unclear under the agency’s rules whether they need one.
The National Transportation Safety Board database lists 35 glider accidents in Hawaii since 1967, five of them fatal.
Per FAA regulations, companies looking to conduct air tours obtain that letter from the local flight standards office — in this case the Flight Standards District Office in Honolulu.
The document spells out exactly what each operator is allowed to do on the tours, according to Gregor.
But the rules specifically apply to operators carrying passengers in airplanes and helicopters. The language does not include gliders.
Still, there’s a lingering question about whether the gliders apply, Gregor said, because many of them rely on airplanes to tow them into the sky.
Air tour operators that use a letter of authorization also can’t fly more than 25 miles from their departure and must take off and land at the same location, according to the FAA. Some tour operators are allowed to fly farther but they’re certified under stricter regulations.
Even if the towplane were to crash, the glider would be able to detach and land safely, Neff said.
Local glider pilots are trained to deal with situations in which the tow rope breaks or engine fails, where they’re able to either land the glider straight ahead at Dillingham’s 2-mile stretch of runway, or, after a certain altitude, turn the glider around to land there, he added.
Anything that happens to the towplane does not impact the glider, Neff said.
Meanwhile, investigators are still looking into what caused last month’s Cessna crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board database lists 35 glider accidents in Hawaii since 1967. Five of them were fatal. Four of those were classified as personal flights, while the fifth was classified as “sightseeing.”
In any case, the local gliders’ air tour status could soon be a moot point as the Hawaii Department of Transportation looks to hand control of Dillingham Airfield back to the U.S. Army at the end of June. The move leaves the future of the private operations there uncertain.
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