After the April 2019 helicopter crash near Hauula, an official with the state agency that chartered the flight called it a “miracle” that all four people aboard managed to walk away seemingly unscathed.

Now, one of those passengers claims in a lawsuit that in fact she was severely injured and that the crash was far from an act of God — the helicopter simply ran out of gas. 

That passenger, Erika Dittmar, is suing the owner, K & S Helicopters, for injuries and damages. 

The pilot, identified in the suit as Carson Klein, told National Transportation Safety Board investigators that he had filled the McDonnell Douglas 369E model helicopter’s fuel tank to capacity before taking off from Turtle Bay Resort for the flight.

helicopter crash
This image, originally provided by DLNR, shows the McDonnell Douglas helicopter that crashed near Hauula in 2019. Hawaii News Now

But Richard Fried, an attorney for Dittmar, said evidence shows the helicopter nonetheless ran out of gas when it crashed in a remote, densely forested area in the Sacred Falls Valley.  

In a phone interview this week, Fried quoted notes on the crash from a separate interview Klein did for the Federal Aviation Administration. 

According to Fried, the notes in the FAA’s National Program Tracking and Reporting Subsystem stated that the pilot said “he must’ve mismanaged the fuel and ran it out,” in part because there were “no residual fuel stains or puddles,” the notes stated.

The NPTRS is an internal FAA system, according to agency spokesman Ian Gregor, so Civil Beat wasn’t able to directly view the notes that Fried quoted. The FAA further does not comment on ongoing investigations, Gregor added.

K & S Helicopters, which does business as Paradise Helicopters, did not respond to a request for comment. 

‘Pre-Impact Fear Of Death’

The state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, part of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, had chartered the helicopter to monitor native seabird populations.

It was flying around the Kaluanui Natural Area Reserve with three passengers, including two staffers with the local nonprofit Pacific Rim Conservation, when the engine suddenly quit.

Klein then set up for an “autorotation,” according to the NTSB. The maneuver can help keep the blades spinning when a helicopter loses power. Photos showed the helicopter almost fully upside down after crashing through the densely forested area. 

DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison told Hawaii News Now that it was a “miracle” all four people aboard walked away from it.

Dittmar is listed as a staffer for Pacific Rim Conservation’s website. Her suit against K & S not only lists severe and chronic upper-body and head injuries, but also “pre-impact fear of death.”

Hawaii has grappled for years with what steps might be taken to make commercial helicopter flights, including air tours, safer. It’s part of a broader national debate over whether to implement stricter safety rules and standards for such flights. 

The NTSB has pressed for tougher regulations, but the aviation industry has largely pushed back, saying the associated costs would put many operators out of business.

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