KOKE'E, Hawaii -- Tour helicopter operations in Hawaii are under increased scrutiny after a deadly crash Thursday, Dec. 26, one of several recent accidents in the state, with a congressman calling the trips unsafe and lacking proper oversight.
A helicopter that was set to tour Kauai's rugged Na Pali Coast, the picturesque and remote northern shoreline of Kauai that was featured in the film “Jurassic Park,” crashed on a mountaintop Thursday killing six people and leaving another missing.
There are no indications that anybody survived the crash. There were six people from two different families and a pilot on the flight. Two of the passengers were believed to be minors, the U.S. Coast Guard said. The search for the missing person resumed Saturday morning.
Police on Kauai have preliminary identified three of the seven passengers aboard Thursday’s helicopter tour that crashed on a mountaintop in a remote part of Hawaii.
In a statement Saturday, police said the flight manifest listed the pilot as Paul Matero, 69, of Wailua, Hawaii. Two passengers were named as 47-year-old Amy Gannon and 13-year-old Jocelyn Gannon of Madison, Wisconsin.
The four other passengers are believed to be from Switzerland, police said, but their identities have not yet been released.
Autopsies are still pending.
U.S. Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii cited fatal accidents over the years, blaming the Federal Aviation Administration for not taking National Transportation Safety Board safety improvement efforts seriously and the industry for not regulating itself.
“Tour helicopter and small aircraft operations are not safe, and innocent lives are paying the price,” said Case, a Democrat. “In our Hawaii alone, the industry, while stridently arguing that it is safe and sensitive to neighborhoods, has in fact ignored any sensible safety improvements, instead dramatically increasing in recent years its volume of flights, at all times of day and night, in seemingly all weather over more residential neighborhoods and to more risky and remote locations, at lower altitudes, while completely failing to address ground safety and community disruption concerns."
The FAA, however, said it conducts random and regular surveillance on all Hawaii air tour operators and ensures companies address any issues, agency spokesman Ian Gregor said in an email. He said the FAA does not have concerns about the industry statewide.
The helicopter company, identified as Safari Helicopters, contacted the Coast Guard on Thursday evening after the helicopter did not return to the airport as scheduled. A search began but steep terrain, low visibility, choppy seas and rain complicated the search.
A person who answered the phone at a number listed for Safari Helicopters declined to comment.
According to a preliminary report, the pilot said the tour was leaving the Waimea Canyon area, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific," about 4:40 p.m., which was the last contact with the helicopter, Kauai police said.
The Eurocopter AS350 has an emergency electronic locator transmitter, but no signals were received despite the locator devices being designed to activate when an aircraft crashes.
Gregor said the FAA requires the locators to be able to withstand impact. However, it is possible for the device to stop working in an extreme crash, he noted.
He said the agency is looking at the company's safety record but likely won't have a full report until Monday. The NTSB announced Friday that it was sending three investigators to Kauai.
The NTSB aviation accident database lists nine crashes of Hawaii helicopter sightseeing flights in the last 10 years, including three with fatalities.
After a Hawaii skydiving plane crashed and killed 11 people in June, the NTSB called on the FAA to tighten its regulations governing parachute operations. The FAA said at the time that it had made changes to address NTSB recommendations.
Towering mountains with deep ravines and huge waterfalls make up the interior of the uninhabited state park where the helicopter crashed this week. Red rock cliffs with thick jungle canopies rise from the Pacific Ocean to over 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) high.
Ladd Sanger, a Texas-based aviation attorney and helicopter pilot who has handled several crash cases involving similar helicopters in Hawaii, said tour operators on Kauai face unique challenges because of weather and topography.
Kauai “has microclimates, so the weather at the airport is going to be different than up at the crash location,” Sanger said. “Those microclimates can come on very quickly and dissipate quickly too, so the weather reporting is difficult.”
Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Dan Dennison said winter brings more rain and turbulent seas.
“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,” he said.
The shoreline has beaches that could potentially serve as emergency landing zones, but they are “few and far between,” Dennison said. “Kauai is incredibly unforgiving terrain. … If you lose the engine there’s just really no place to land on the tour route that they were flying.”