TOM FINNEGAN / TFINNEGAN@STARBULLETIN.COM
National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration officials looked for structural or mechanical problems among the remains of a downed Heli USA helicopter in September at a Lihue Airport hangar.
Pilot in fatal crash under criminal investigation
This is the first time Kauai prosecutors are considering charging an aircraft operator
LIHUE » Kauai prosecutors are looking into possible criminal charges against the Heli USA helicopter pilot whose sightseeing flight crashed in a thunderstorm off Kauai's Haena Point in September, killing three people.
Glen Lampton, the Heli USA pilot, could face negligent-homicide or manslaughter charges if prosecutors and federal officials determine Lampton flew into a dangerous situation he could have, and should have, avoided.
A Heli USA spokesman said the investigation is routine, and people should reserve judgment until all the information is collected.
While county prosecutors did confirm the existence of the case, they would not comment on the investigation.
"We'd like to do a complete and fair investigation before filing charges, if any," said county Prosecutor Craig De Costa.
De Costa said that in his 10-plus years at the county Prosecutor's Office, they have never investigated a helicopter crash, adding that in most fatal crashes the pilot has died as well.
Killed in the Sept. 23 crash were tourists Catherine Baron, 68, and Mary Soucy, 62, both from Portland, Maine, and Laverne Clifton, 68, from Beloit, Wis.
Prosecutors are treating this case similarly to how they would treat a fatal motor vehicle accident, De Costa said.
For a manslaughter charge to be sustained, prosecutors would have to prove that a vehicle was operated in a reckless manner. In a car accident that could be excessive speeding, weaving in and out of vehicles or passing over a double yellow line. The lesser charge of negligent homicide would indicate lesser culpability, such as someone committing a single traffic infraction at the time of the accident.
In this case it apparently comes down to whether Lampton should have turned around instead of flying into the thunderstorm.
"We're looking into the reasons why he was where he was" at the time of the crash, said De Costa's first deputy prosecutor, Richard Minatoya, who is spearheading the investigation.
While two other tour pilots, just minutes before the crash, were forced to turn around and go under the federally mandated 500-foot altitude to avoid the storm, Lampton said he was forced into the storm after avoiding another helicopter. At 2,000 feet he encountered rain and turbulence, and when he tried to turn around he encountered wind sheer, causing the helicopter to plunge into the water. Lampton and two others were able to make it out of the aircraft with no injuries. The other three drowned.
Ian Bagano of Inter-Island Helicopters, the pilot Lampton accused of getting in his way, told National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators that he was more than a thousand feet below and miles away from the helicopter when it crashed.
Lampton also told investigators he never lost sight of land, a requirement of the tours. But according to the preliminary investigation conducted by officials from the NTSB, the weather at the time was instrument-rated, meaning visibility was so low that a pilot must be able to rely on instruments.
While Heli USA officials said earlier that Lampton had undergone extensive training, including training for inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions, he was not certified as instrument-rated.
The Federal Aviation Administration, NTSB and the Kauai Police Department are also involved in the case, prosecutors said. The federal authorities "have cooperated with our request for information," De Costa said, but it is up to the county to decide whether to press charges.
Since it is the first time prosecutors have ever conducted a criminal investigation into the pilot of a downed aircraft, they have been in contact with prosecutors from as far away as Florida for help, Minatoya said.
The case apparently came to light after prosecutors served subpoenas on television media outlets, requesting their footage of witnesses to the crash and rescue efforts.
Heli USA spokesman John Power, at the company's headquarters in Las Vegas, said the company was "waiting for the investigation to be completed before we comment."
He added that Lampton, who has moved from Kauai, is still employed by the company but "not flying aircraft at this point" until the investigation is completed.