FAA needs to upgrade supervision of helicopter tours
The National Transportation Safety Board is calling for tougher standards and increased oversight of helicopter tour operations.
WITH hundreds of thousands of tourists boarding helicopters for bird's-eye views of Hawaii every year, a federal agency's recommendations for increased safety measures
clearly make sense for the air tour industry and the state's reputation.
Though the Federal Aviation Administration just last week issued new safety standards governing air tours nationwide, additional improvements suggested by the National Transportation Safety Board also should be adopted to address unique conditions in the islands.
After reviewing two fatal helicopter crashes on Kauai in 2004 and 2005, the safety board pinpointed the inexperience of the pilots and hazardous local weather patterns as the causes, noting that both had been flying over Kauai for less than two months. The NTSB also reported that four of eight weather-related helicopter accidents in the state since 1994 involved pilots new to Hawaii.
Pilots acknowledge that weather in the islands can change quickly and is influenced by physical features, such as steep mountain ridges, and other factors, like the time of day. The board says that because of this, pilots unfamiliar with Hawaii should get special training.
The NTSB also recommends that tour helicopters be equipped with flotation devices even if they aren't flown for long periods over water. By contrast, the FAA's new rules require flotation devices only on aircraft that fly outside of gliding distances to shorelines with safe landing sites and if passengers aren't equipped with life preservers.
In the 2005 crash, three tourists drowned when their helicopter sank into the ocean several hundred feet off Kauai's north shore. The passengers had been given life vests, but they were packed in waist pouches and not all were able to put them on, get out of the helicopter and inflate the vests in time. The board said more might have been saved if the aircraft had flotation equipment.
The NTSB further recommends the FAA oversee commercial air tour companies more closely and enforce regulations on permits, aircraft maintenance and drug and alcohol testing. It also suggests a system be established to use global positioning devices to provide tour pilots with information about weather and air traffic.
These are reasonable proposals, as some tour companies have recognized by putting into practice many of the suggestions on their own.
Helicopter tours give visitors thrilling views of places in the islands that they might not be able to see otherwise, and while there are always risks in flying, they should have assurance that they will get back on the ground safely.