2 pilots dodged fatal storm
Other tour helicopters in the area descended to skirt conditions blamed for a crash off Kauai
Two pilots told federal investigators they did not encounter the turbulence and wind shear that a Heli USA pilot reported just before his helicopter crashed off Kauai's north shore on Sept. 23.
In a preliminary report released by the National Transportation Safety Board yesterday, the pilots, who were not named, said they had to drop below federally mandated altitude guidelines to avoid visibility problems caused by the rain.
John Power, a spokesman for the Las Vegas-based Heli USA, said the pilot encountered a "microburst" that caused the Aerospatiale AS350 to go down. The crash killed three vacationers, but the pilot and two other tourists survived.
The report described the weather at the time of the crash as "instrument conditions," meaning visibility was so poor that pilots had to rely on their instruments to fly.
The Heli USA pilot, Glen Lampton, was not instrument-rated, meaning he had to be within sight of land at all times.
According to the report, Lampton said he saw a MD-500 helicopter flown by Ian Bagano of Inter-Island Helicopters coming toward him and turned left into the rain showers.
Just as he was leveling off, he experienced the rain and tried to turn around, he told investigators. He was nearly through his turn when the helicopter's speed went to zero and the aircraft dropped straight down, eventually hitting the water, investigators said.
Meanwhile, Bagano said he was forced by the rain and low visibility to descend to a low altitude and turn around. He told investigators he was near Hanakapiai Beach, miles away, when the Mayday calls began coming in. He also said he was well below the elevation the Heli USA tour was flying.
Two other tour pilots who flew through the area within 15 minutes of the accident also had to descend to 300 feet to avoid losing visibility of the shoreline, the report indicated.
One of the tour pilots, just minutes in front of Bagano's flight, was forced to descend again, to 100 feet above ground level, to maintain visibility as he turned around to escape the storm.
According to Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, pilots are supposed to maintain a 500-foot elevation during the tours.
Despite the weather and his 2,000-foot elevation, though, Lampton told investigators he never lost sight of the land.
Power said the NTSB would be talking to "eyewitnesses," the survivors, other pilots and people on the beach to determine who is culpable in the accident.
He added that Lampton, who had been working for the company for six or seven weeks, had undergone rigorous training above FAA guidelines, including training for inadvertent entry into "instrument meteorological conditions."
There is no timetable for the NTSB full report, which will contain a probable cause. Lead NTSB investigator Debra Eckrote has said the investigation is expected to take months.