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Monday, March 12, 2007

Pontoons Figured in Tourist Helicopter Crash

Just days after a Heli-USA helicopter crashed at Princeville Kauai killing four and injuring three, another tourism chopper has gone down on the island. One male passenger was killed, another critically hurt and two female passengers received minor injuries only. The 30 y.o. pilot was uninjured. The cause is believed to have been a tail-rotor drive-shaft or gear-box failure in N911VC, a Hughes 500 owned by Inter Island Helicopters and operated by Smoky Mountain Helicopters Inc. It happened just after 1 p.m. near the YMCA camp at Hanalei. A loud bang was heard by witnesses and the helo was seen to be spinning down over a period of around 30 seconds, finally crashing in trees.

It was the sixth fatal Kauai helicopter tour crash in four years and also the second fatal helicopter accident on the island of Kauai in four days. In the March 8th Heli-USA accident, the float pontoons were found (amongst the wreckage) to have deployed. This is considered to be unusual as:

a. The pilot had reported a hydraulics failure in the A-Star helo
b. Standard operating procedure is to do a run-on airfield landing on the metal skids at around 20 knots (as the helicopter loses its ability to hover and retain directional control due to control force feedback without hydraulic boost)
c. A run-on landing on inflated pontoons on the ground would lead to a disastrous outcome (per what happened)

Heli-USA's Kauai helicopters had been fitted with flotation devices, although not required by the FAA. The NTSB report on a prior crash at sea had requested that new FAA rules require deployable flotation devices. The Air Safety Week coverage of those new rules can be found in the 19 February 2007 issue ("New Heat in Hawaii"). A link to Aviationtoday's coverage to the Princeville crash is here.
The original Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Air Tour Operations announced by the FAA on 22 October 2003 can be read at this link.
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