The pilot who died along with six tourists in a sightseeing helicopter crash in Kauai last month did not have an instrument rating, the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed.
Pilot Paul Matero, 69, had a commercial pilot license but his lack of an instrument rating essentially barred him from flying passengers at night, flying more than 50 miles, and flying at certain times of day and in certain weather conditions, such as those that restrict visibility and other times that make pilots more dependent on instrument readings to navigate.
“Air tours by definition are conducted under visual flight rules, so there is no requirement for a pilot to have an instrument rating,” the FAA said in an email to Hawai’i Public Radio. “However, pilots who lack instrument ratings are limited in the flights they can conduct.”
The helicopter, operated by Safari Helicopters of Lihue, Hawaii, was taking passengers on a tour of Kauai’s dramatic Na Pali coastline when it struck a mountain ridge at an elevation of 2,900 feet. The helicopter burst into flames and fell 100 feet, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Also killed in the crash were Amy Gannon, 47, and her daughter Jocelyn Gannon, 13, both of Madison, Wisconsin. The other passengers were a family from Switzerland — Sylvie Winteregg, 50, Christophe Winteregg, 49, Alice Winteregg, 13, and Agathe Winteregg, 10, according to Hawaii’s Star-Advertiser.
While most pilots who fly for sightseeing helicopter companies aren’t required to have an instrument rating, Kauai and other Hawaiian islands have incredibly dynamic weather patterns and micro-climates that can change with little warning.
The NTSB hasn’t determined why the helicopter crashed, but weather conditions and the pilot’s training are among the potential causes investigators are looking into. Meteorological conditions on Dec. 26, 2019, the day of the crash, included a high-pressure system to the northwest that caused winds to shift in that direction.
U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-HI) has called for better helicopter regulations in Hawaii for years. He reiterated his support for tighter safety rules two days before the Kauai crash in the days following it.
“Tour helicopter and small aircraft operations are not safe, and innocent lives are paying the price,” the congressman said in a Dec. 27 statement. “We know this not only because of repeated fatal accidents and other incidents over the years, but because the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), responsible for analyzing all such accidents, has placed safety improvements for such operations on its highest priority list. We further know that the Federal Aviation Administration, responsible for regulating our nation’s airspace, has not taken the NTSB’s concerns seriously.”
Rep. Case’s remarks drew the ire of some helicopter tour industry officials, including Richard Schuman, the president of Schuman Aviation Co. in Honolulu.
“It’s amazing politicians can say whatever they want and not back it up,” Mr. Schuman told reporters, according to Honolulu Civil Beat.
But according to Rep. Case, there is more than enough evidence showing that Hawaii’s largely self-regulated aviation industry is unsafe.
“If Hawaii’s tour helicopter/small aircraft industry does not view twenty-one tragic deaths in one year alone as any safety concern, if it believes widespread public concern is not important, then we have a much much larger problem,” Rep. Case said in a statement.
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.