From hard landings to deadly crashes, helicopter accidents are common in Hawaii, affecting the state’s tourism industry and threatening injury and death to those who visit the islands. Hawaii’s mountainous terrain and ocean views make it a destination for tourists taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip to experience its natural beauty. Unfortunately, even the most experienced helicopter pilots who carry tourists on those trips can make mistakes while flying.
Commercial air tour and sightseeing operations must abide by national air tour safety standards administered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). But some helicopter tour operators try to cut corners on aircraft maintenance and personnel training, and some fail to abide by safety regulation. Nationwide, more than half of air tour helicopter accidents involved system or component failures, according to an FAA report.
Among the frequently cited causes of helicopter accidents are:
A recent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report found that a 2011 Molokai helicopter crash that killed five people was caused by the pilot flying too close to mountains in bad weather. The Blue Hawaiian Helicopters Eurocopter EC-130 was on a sightseeing tour of West Maui and Molokai when it crashed in the mountains and burned near Kilohana Elementary School, according to the article.
The NTSB report noted that the pilot failed to maintain clearance from mountainous terrain amid low clouds, rain showers and high wind and clipped the ground and trees, causing the helicopter to crash. The crash killed the pilot and four passengers, including a newlywed couple.
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters said it is studying the reports and working to improve flight procedures. The Maui News reported that the family of one passenger killed in the crash settled with Blue Hawaiian for an undisclosed amount in March.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there were five non-fatal helicopter crashes in Hawaii in 2013.
In June 2014, five sight-seeing passengers and the pilot on an Airbus AS 350 BA helicopter operated by Sunshine Helicopters, Inc. of Puunene, Hawaii, narrowly escaped injury when the helicopter’s main rotor speed began decreasing, sounding a warning alarm. It prompted the pilot to make an emergency hard landing, according to NTSB records. The helicopter fuselage was structurally damaged.
The frequency of crashes involving sight-seeing helicopters in Hawaii in the 1990s prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to issue emergency rules to reduce the number of injuries and deaths associated with Hawaiian air tours.
The FAA regulations emphasized minimum flight altitudes and clearances from terrain, emphasized precautions to ensure passenger safety and required flotation equipment or wearing life preservers on flights over the ocean.
A 2009 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Injury Research and Policy noted that sightseeing crashes in Hawaii had decreased in the years since the FAA emergency rule took effect in 1994. But the researchers noted that the proportion of crashes resulting from low visibility such as flying in rain, fog and cloud cover had increased from 5 percent to 32 percent of all air tour helicopter crashes.
The most common malfunction associated with helicopter crashes was loss of power, most often caused by improper maintenance of the helicopter. Many of these crashes could be prevented through proper maintenance procedures, improved mechanic training and closer FAA oversight.
The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated numerous helicopter crashes related to adverse weather. Pilots in Hawaii can face challenging weather scenarios and weather can vary greatly from location to location. The NTSB said flying conditions could be particularly challenging on the island of Kauai because of steep terrain, mountain winds and rapidly changing cloud conditions.
In 2013, the NTSB urged the FAA to install and maintain cameras to monitor weather at critical locations throughout the islands to give helicopter pilots more access to weather information.
Helicopter tourism is popular in Hawaii, but every precaution should be taken to ensure the safety of passengers.
If you or a family member are injured in a helicopter crash in the Hawaiian Islands, contact an experienced personal-injury attorney who can help you determine your legal options and guide you through the court system. Make sure you are well represented in case of a disastrous event that causes injury or even death.
Aviation, Space & Environmental Medicine
Review of Civil Aviation Accidents, 2007-2009
National Transportation Safety Board: Safety Recommendation letter
Hawaii Helicopter Crashes