The National Transportation Safety Board today determined that the probable cause of the fatal crash of an air tour helicopter in Hawaii "was the pilot's decision to continue flight into adverse weather conditions, which resulted in a loss of control due to an encounter with a microburst." Contributing to the accident, the Board said, was inadequate Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) surveillance of compliance with Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) 71 operating restrictions. Contributing to the loss of life in the accident was the lack of helicopter flotation equipment.
On the afternoon of September 23, 2005, an Aerospatiale AS350BA helicopter, registered to Jan Leasing, LLC, and operated by Heli-USA Airways, Inc., encountered adverse weather and crashed into the Pacific Ocean several hundred feet off the coast of Kailiu Point, near Haena, Hawaii.
The flight had departed from Lihue Airport for an intended 45-minute tour of the island of Kauai. Three passengers died of drowning or drowning-related circumstances; the commercial pilot and two other passengers received minor injuries.
Investigators noted that there is no weather reporting facility on the north end of Kauai, where the accident occurred, and that in the absence of reliable and timely official weather information, air tour pilots typically are required to use their own judgment, based on the appearance of the weather conditions, to determine whether to proceed with a flight.
Because the island's unique weather patterns involve daily, brief, localized rain showers, it is not unusual for Kauai air tour pilots to encounter and briefly penetrate areas of precipitation during flights.
The helicopter was not equipped with flotation equipment and sank quickly after hitting the water. Although each occupant wore a waist pouch containing a vest-type personal flotation device (PFD) and received instruction in its use, not all were able to don the PFD, exit the helicopter and properly inflate the PFD. One surviving passenger stated that when the helicopter touched down and rolled on its side the cabin was engulfed in water within about three seconds.
In a 1995 report on the U.S. air tour industry, the Board noted that combined use of PFDs and helicopter flotation equipment provided an optimum level of safety for passengers in the event of an emergency ditching, and urged the FAA to reconsider the SFAR 71 rule that allowed Hawaii air tour operators to provide only one or the other.
On October 22, 2003, the FAA issued for public comment a proposed rule that would have required most types of air tour helicopters operating over water to be equipped with fixed or inflatable floats. However, the final rule, announced on February 8, 2007 by the FAA, while providing for enhanced oversight of commercial air tours, falls short on mandating helicopter flotation devices when PFDs are provided.
"This flight into dangerous weather conditions had tragic consequences," said NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker, "but lives might have been spared if the helicopter had flotation equipment. I am disappointed that the rulemaking process once again has moved so slowly and that the final result still leaves open a real safety gap."
The Board recommended that FAA require that "all helicopters used in commercial air tour operations over water, regardless of the amount of time over water, be amphibious or equipped with fixed or inflatable floats."
The Board also recommended that the FAA evaluate the design, maintenance, and in-service handling to determine why some chambers of a PFD fail to inflate.
The Board also deliberated another Hawaii air tour helicopter accident report earlier today, in which the Heli- USA Airways accident was cited to support recommendations addressing local weather training for newly hired Hawaii air tour pilots, air tour operational practices, FAA surveillance of air tour operators, and flight tracking and on-board weather technology for Hawaii air tour aircraft.
A synopsis of the Board's report, including the probable cause and safety recommendations, is available on the Board's Web site, www.ntsb.gov, under "Board Meetings." The Board's full report will be available on the Web site in several weeks.