With this week’s tragic helicopter crash involving Kobe Bryant, Hawaii helicopter tour safety comes back to the forefront again. Hawaii has a disproportionately large percentage of US helicopter incidents.
In last week’s crash in California, the NTSB indicated the aircraft was not equipped with a terrain alarm system which would have warned about the approaching hillside. We are wondering whether any Hawaii helicopter tours are so equipped. Does anyone know?
“The rapidly mounting loss of life and ground risks from Hawaii air tour helicopter/small aircraft crashes should be tragedy enough and spark unanimous concern for the basic safety of these operations.” — Senator Ed Case.
In August 2019, Case introduced the Safe and Quiet Skies Act, designed to impose stricter regulations on commercial tour operations to including helicopters and small planes. In addition to strict sound regulations, it would require tour flights to fly no less than 1,500-foot altitude over actual ground at virtually all times. We were recently on a flight seeing tour in Africa wherein the pilot flew at a mere 200 feet above ground. Hmm.
The most recent Hawaii incident occurred on Kauai just last month, on December 26, 2019, when a Safari Helicopters’ aircraft crashed into a hillside on a Na Pali Coast tour during quick-changing low visibility. The helicopter was an ASTAR B2 aircraft with 1D1 Turbomeca engines. The only prior Hawaii helicopter incident involving Safari dates back to 1987, in which there were no fatalities. The helicopter carried the pilot plus two children and four adult passengers. The wreckage of the helicopter was later found in Kokee State Park near Nualolo. See the preliminary NTSB report.
Prior 2019 Crash Involving Hawaii Helicopter Tours
Last month’s incident followed another accident just 8 months earlier, when on April 29, a Novictor Tour Helicopter went down in a residential neighborhood at Kailua on Oahu. Three people were killed in that incident which is still under investigation, including the pilot. The NTSB preliminary report said that witnesses “observed the helicopter in a nose low attitude descending rapidly; none of the rotor blades were moving and the helicopter appeared to be descending vertically with little forward motion.”
The helicopter that crashed in Kailua was a four-seat Robinson R44. The popular and lower entry cost R44 helicopters appear to be flown by and are listed on the websites of the following Hawaii companies: Novictor, Mauna Loa, Pacific Helicopter Tours. There may be others. NTSB reports indicate that R44’s suffered 42 US crashes involving fatalities in the 10 years between 2006 and 2016. That deadly accident rate is roughly 50% higher than the other most common helicopters for civilian flights, according to an LA Times article from November.
Federal Authorities on Hawaii Helicopter Tours
Senator Mazie Hirono recently asked for more information about Hawaii helicopter tours from the NTSB and the FAA. She is seeking “an accounting of all air tour accidents and unintended landings in Hawaii for the last five years, the findings, recommendations and requirements.” State representative Cynthia Thielen wants federal authorities to stop Hawaii helicopter tours in residential areas and national parks, and had asked that flights be grounded until the April crash investigation is completed.
Over 60 Hawaii Helicopter Tours Had Accidents In Past 40 Years
In Hawaii, weather conditions are extremely fast changing. That, put together with financial considerations necessitating flying, make the situation worse. Perhaps as many as one third of all helicopter accidents here are weather related.
In total this latest incident makes more than 60 total crashes in Hawaii, nearly 20 with fatalities, in the past 40 years. Over fifty passengers and 11 pilots have died. While each life lost is obviously very important, there are a huge number of visitors who have flown safely.
Changes in Regulations
Rules have been in place for years that define minimum altitudes and clearances as well as other rules and safety equipment. Even so, the number of crashes that have resulted from low visibility in rain and clouds increased from 5 percent to 32 percent of all helicopter tour crashes.
There remains controversy regarding an FAA proposal establishing a minimum altitude of 1500 feet in order to avoid obscured mountain peaks that are frequently found in Hawaii. Tour operators believe that the increased altitude could result in additional crashes from reduced visibility in clouds often present at higher altitudes.
Hawaii Helicopter Association
The Hawaii Helicopter Association is an organization whose goals include noise compliance (if you’ve ever hiked Waimea Canyon on Kauai, we need say no more). She said, “we wanted to get the operators together to do a number of things to promote responsible helicopter flying in Hawaii and advance new initiatives.” Included in the association’s plan is a state-wide aviation weather cam network.
Does these incidents impact your decision to take Hawaii helicopter tours?
We know that helicopter tours are a most popular Hawaii activity that many visitors enjoy safely.
Beat of Hawaii photo near Na Pali Kauai, site of the most recent Hawaii incident.