Pilot error blamed for fatal Air Ambulance crash on Big Isle
The National Transportation Safety Board cited pilot error as the probable cause of a Hawaii Air Ambulance plane crash on the Big Island two years ago.
Pilot Ronald Laubacher, 38; Mandy Shiraki, 47, Emergency Medical Services district supervisor; and Joseph Daniel Villiaros, 39, a Honolulu firefighter, were killed in a crash on the Big Island on Jan. 31, 2004. They were expected to land at the Hilo Airport at 1:50 a.m. that day to pick up a patient.
According to a recent report by the NTSB, the crash was likely caused by "the pilot's disregard for an in-flight weather advisory, his likely encounter with the marginal VFR (visual flight rules) and IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) weather conditions, his decision to continue flight into those conditions, and failure to maintain an adequate terrain clearance altitude resulting in an in-flight collision with trees and mountainous terrain."
The report stated that a contributing factor was "the pilot's failure to adhere to the visual flight rules weather minimum procedures in the company's operations manual."
Hawaii Air Ambulance told NTSB that their pilots normally operate under VFR because instrument flight rules or IFR get held up when departing Honolulu or Kona. "This helped them get under way to their patients faster. The pilots could pick up their IFR clearance en route," the NTSB reported.
"Investigators found no anomalies with the airplane or engines that would have precluded normal operation," the NTSB further stated.
"We are saddened and surprised by this news," said Andrew Kluger, chief executive officer and chairman of Hawaii Air Ambulance, in a statement. "Ron was an exceptional friend and pilot who flew a great many successful missions. We still miss him dearly."
Paramedics who had flown with Laubacher had told NTSB officials that they were confident in his flying abilities.
NTSB stated the aircraft's flight path was not normal. Based on the report, the route to Hilo was to fly over Upolu Point at 9,500 feet and then begin descent about 15 to 20 minutes later. The last radar transmission of the aircraft was recorded sometime before 1:30 a.m. at 6,400 feet about 26 miles northwest of the wreckage site.
At about 1:30 a.m., a resident of Umikoa Village located at an elevation of 3,526 feet observed the Cessna 414A airplane at about 500 feet above the ground. Officials from the Civil Air Patrol discovered the wreckage two days after the crash occurred in a thick forested area in Laupahoehoe.
The report further stated that Laubacher was flying on the last day of his four-day shift. An autopsy report stated Laubacher had diphenhydramine, an antihistamine, in his liver and kidney. The report did not indicate whether the antihistamine had any effect on his flying abilities.