Ultralight on Kauai

Latest Crash on Kauai: How Safe Are Ultralights

We’re saddened once again this week by the deaths of two people on Kauai. The crash took place at Waiakamoo Valley near Polihale Beach. Killed were Birds of Paradise owner Gerry Charlebois, a pioneer in Hawaii ultralights, and his passenger. Charlebois was said to have over 50,000 hours of Ultralight experience.

Ultralights, like the one pictured here, are frequently seen taking off and landing at Kauai’s Port Allen air field adjacent to the south shore’s Salt Pond Beach Park. They are certainly very popular and we’ve heard from visitors and locals alike that they love the experience.

Are Ultralights Safe?

First, I’m not a pilot. Our friend, Daniel (pictured above), raved about his experience.

Here’s what others have said however.

  • Research (no longer online) from Australia suggested “Ultralight fliers are about six times more likely to die for every hour flown than if they flew in general aviation aircraft.” At least 65 ultralight pilots and students died in Australia from 2001 through 2009.
  • Ultralight has been compared with a motorbike in terms of crash records. Ultralights fly at slower speed than airplanes, however, which could moderate the severity of crashes.
  • Professionally built Ultralights have quality design. At the same time, the craft have the least requirements in terms of training and proficiency.
  • Pressure to make money shouldn’t, but could be, an issue when ultralights fly in spite of deteriorating weather conditions. We have noted that here on Kauai. The size and weight of these craft could also be an issue in terms of increased susceptibility to fast-fluctuating island wind conditions.

Prior Hawaii Ultralight crashes

May 17, 2011

  • Crash took place on Kauai’s north shore following take off from Port Allen. Both the passenger and pilot died.

February 15, 2011

  • Big Skies Ultralight crashed into the ocean near glass beach, just east of Port Allen Airport. The pilot, Jim Gaither, 55, and owner of Big Sky Kauai, died together with his passenger, Kim Buergel, 49, who was from Spokane Washington.

December 22, 2010

  • A Big Sky Ultralight was severely damaged but no one hurt when the craft made an unplanned golf course landing in Poipu.

April 21, 2010

  • An Ultralight crashed on the Big Island, after one of its wings apparently folded, killing both the pilot and passenger. It plunged into the waters off Kealakekua Bay.

August 2009

  • The Birds of Paradise passenger’s leg was broken in two places, among other injuries, resulting in a federal lawsuit claiming pilot negligence and fraud. The craft plummeted into Hanapepe Valley during inclement weather. The passenger was forced to remain at the crash site overnight before he could be airlifted.

We welcome your comments.


19 thoughts on “Latest Crash on Kauai: How Safe Are Ultralights”

  1. I Was One Of The Very Early Ultralight Pilots And Worked As The Demonstration Pilot For Robertson Aircraft, Was A Dealer For The Petrodactyl And As The Marketing Director For Flyer News Paper, My Job Was To Fly Every Ner Ultralight Design And Write A Pilot Report Describing The Design.

    First There Is No Such Thing As A Two Seat Ultralight. To Be A Legal Ultralight The Aircraft Must Have A Single Seat Only. There Are Several Other Requirements Which An Aircraft Must Comply With To Be A Legal Ultralight.

    With The Availability Of Aircraft Mounted Ballistic Launch Parachutes, The Safety Factor For Ultralights Had Increased Dramatically. The Probability Of A Structural Failure In A Legal Ultralight Is Very Small In Any Event.

    There Have Beed Chute Deployments Due To Engine Failures Over Terrain With No Available Landing Site And The Deployment Saved The Pilot.

    Part Of What Makes An Ultralight An Ultralight Is The Slow Flying Speed And Very Light Weight (250 Lbs) Both Of These Basic Factors Greatly Increase The Safety Of Flight Operations In An Ultralight In Optimum Conditions.

    With Proper Instruction And Good Judgement, Flying An Ultralight Can Be Your Ticket To Aviation And The Joys Of Seeing Earth From Above. All In All The Sport Of Ultralight Aviation Is Far Safer Than Ever.

    After Moving To The Big Island I Took A 14 Year Hiatus From Flying And Just Last Week I Bought A Beautiful New Ultralight In Florida. I Will Being Her Back To The Big Island This Summer So I Can Get The Views Of My Home Island That I Have Been Missing. Yes The Aircraft Is Fitted With A Parachute

    Ok I’ll Stop Now

  2. As the wife of one of the unfortunate victims of the May 17, 2011 “accident” I can only say these are NOT instructional flights, there were no safety instructions prior to take off and the pilot was grossly negligent in the maintenance of his plane. This is an industry that is not monitored by the FAA or the NTSB on a regular basis due to “lack of manpower” as was explained to me by the NTSB. These planes may be safe somewhere in the world, but clearly they should not be allowed to fly on the islands. HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE TO DIE BEFORE IT’S TOO MANY? My husband was not a thrill seeker, I purchased this tour as an anniversary gift for him to see the island from above. Had I known or seen anything posted on the internet about the crash in February 2011, I would have never purchased this for my husband. What started out as a celebration of 25 years of marriage, quickly turned into the saddest day of my life, my son, my husbands family and our friends. Spread the word–not worth the risk.

  3. Gerry did have around 18-20,000 hours flying in trikes, god only knows how many hours he had in hang gliders. No he did not fly 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. He did accrue flight time in these for over 20 years though. May Hill, your “sound pilot” husband probably knows nothing of this category or aircraft, god forbid put a high time GA pilot in the front seat of a trike anyway. Highest rate of incidents there is in this category! One thing consistent out here I can tell you that hinders safety a lot in my opinion is the ignorant county and local officials that do not build or allow operators facilities. Would not pertain to this case, and I know that all of these were pilot error accept the golf course landing accident, but it sure would help. This as said above is not an ultralight!!! It is LSA WSC. These accidents have been very concentrated in the last 5 years. Majorly take place in HI…….?????????? Huh

  4. First off my condolences to the families of those lost.

    Thrill seekers should be well aware of the chance of dying during any of their activities. There are risks in everything we do, some more risky than others. Just because something like this is risky there is no reason to ban it or outlaw it. I imagine that the passenger that died was an adventurous sole and had done many other similiar thrill seeking adventures.
    I have saw trail after trail closed on Kauai because someone went on an adventure hike, did something wrong and ended up dying or getting hurt. The families of course sued and therefore the tails were closed. Now we can no longer visit these amazing locations. I do not have the statistics in deaths and accidents for all activities on Kauai, however I imagine more people have died hiking, swimming, touring in helicopters, tour on boats, kayaking, etc… than flying in an SLSA.

    My point is that while these types of activities should be regulated to require the operator to meet certain safety standards, they should not be banned or made illegal. If everything that was dangerous was banned, we would have a boring, unadventurous life.

    Thanks Joe


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