A sightseeing helicopter crashed at the top of a mountain in a secluded area on the island of Kauai the evening of Dec. 26, killing all seven people aboard.
The helicopter was carrying six passengers from two families plus the pilot for an aerial tour of Kauai when its operator, Safari Helicopters, contacted the Coast Guard around 6 p.m. to report the aircraft missing about 40 minutes after it failed to return at its expected arrival time of 5:21 p.m. The Coast Guard said that it believed two of the deceased were children.
According to the Associated Press, Kauai police said the pilot reported that the tour was leaving the Waimea Canyon area about 4:40 p.m. That report was the last contact the company had with the helicopter.
Search and rescue crews found the wreckage about 9:30 a.m. Friday morning in a remote area of Kokee, about 13 miles north of Hanapepe on the island’s southern coast. They were able to recover six bodies but suspended the search for the seventh body at 3:30 p.m. due to fog and poor visibility.
The bodies of Amy Gannon, 47, of Madison, Wisconsin, and her daughter Jocelyn Gannon, 13, were recovered from the wreckage, Kauai police said Saturday. The other victims were a family from Switzerland, including two girls ages 10 and 13. Pilot Paul Matero, 69, was also identified as among the deceased.
The Safari Helicopters Eurocopter AS350 was equipped with an emergency electronic locator transmitter, but investigators said no signals from the downed aircraft were detected. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that the devices be able to withstand the impact of a crash, but it’s possible that it could be rendered nonfunctional in a particularly severe crash.
According to the Associated Press, aerial tour operators face unique challenges flying among the rugged mountains of Kauai. The island has incredibly dynamic microclimates that change rapidly and make weather forecasting relatively unpredictable.
“You can have very low ceilings. You can have fog and cloud banks that move in very quickly. You can have heavy rain and strong winds that make flying difficult if not impossible at times,” Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Dan Dennison told the Associated Press.
He also explained that the island’s beaches may serve as emergency landing spots in the event of engine trouble, but they are “few and far between” on Kauai’s “incredibly unforgiving terrain.” He said there is really no place to make an emergency landing on the typical sightseeing tour route
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent a team of three investigators to Kauai over the weekend to open a probe of the crash. Weather conditions are among the potential causes they will look at. Pilot training and experience, mechanical problems, and helicopter maintenance are some of the other safety issues NTSB investigators also consider in aviation crashes.
According to Hawaii News Now, the helicopter crash was the third to occur within the state in 2019.
In April, a Robinson R44 aircraft sightseeing helicopter operated by Novictor plummeted nose-first onto a busy street in Kailua, Oahu. All three people aboard the helicopter were killed. About six months prior, in October 2018, a Novictor Helicopter crash landed on a Kaneohe Bay sandbar, injuring the pilot and two passengers.
Earlier in April 2019, a state-contracted helicopter crashed in Sacred Falls Valley on Oahu’s North Shore. The four people aboard survived the crash without injury.
U.S. Representative Ed Case of Hawaii has faulted the FAA for Hawaii’s multiple helicopter crashes over the years, claiming the agency fails to take the NTSB’s safety recommendations seriously. He has also said the FAA allows the helicopter industry to largely self-regulate and “innocent lives are paying the price” for this lax oversight.
Mike Andrews, a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section, focuses much of his practice on aviation accident litigation. He has represented people seriously injured in aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes. Currently, Mike represents family members of victims in the Ethiopian Airlines crash involving the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft.