Witness relates nose-first plunge
Crash investigators eye many factors
PRINCEVILLE, Kauai » A witness watched as a Heli USA helicopter plunged nose-first into the grass by the Princeville Airport runway, crushing the front of the cockpit, investigators said yesterday as they began looking into the cause of Thursday's crash.
National Transportation Safety Board lead investigator Brian Rayner said the witness has given a written statement and will be interviewed further.
A preliminary report on the investigation will likely be released in two weeks, Rayner said.
Pilot Joe Sulak reported a hydraulic failure shortly before the crash, but hydraulic failure will not be the primary focus of the investigation, Rayner said.
The investigation will also look into Sulak, the company, and any weather or other conditions that may have made landing the aircraft difficult.
Rayner said they will also try to determine whether inflatable pontoons in the helicopter's landing gear deployed before the aircraft landed or on impact.
Seven people were on the A-Star 350 helicopter when it crashed. Four including Sulak died, and three are hospitalized.
Crash investigators eye many factors
PRINCEVILLE, Kauai » The front end of a Heli USA A-Star 350BA helicopter is completely missing -- an indication of the force of the crash that killed four people and critically injured three others Thursday.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board got their first look at the wreckage yesterday.
The helicopter crashed nose-first, crushing the cockpit, said NTSB lead investigator Brian Rayner.
The NTSB is looking at a number of factors that could have caused the accident, Rayner said.
"My job here is to bring a big net and gather up information as we can," Rayner said yesterday, adding that he expects preliminary findings within two weeks.
Despite downed pilot Joe Sulak's call that he was experiencing hydraulic problems, the hydraulic system "won't be the focus of the investigation," Rayner added.
Investigators are also combing over everything from Sulak's pilot certificates to Heli USA's maintenance records. The wreckage is scheduled to be moved to Lihue Airport today so portions can be taken apart and, perhaps re-run to determine what was working and what was not at the time of the crash, Rayner continued.
Also, whether the pontoons, designed to allow for a water landing, were inflated before or after impact "is something we're going to look at," he added.
An employee at Avis Rent-a-Car at Princeville Airport actually witnessed the helicopter's last few moments in the air and its crash into the ground. Investigators took her written statement and expect to talk to her again, Rayner said.
Relatives of the victims are also arriving in Hawaii, said Heli USA Vice President John Power.
"I'd like to express our condolences and prayers" to the passengers and their relatives, Power said yesterday. He added that Heli USA Chief Executive Nigel Turner is on his way to the islands to help.
"We're focusing on the welfare of (the surviving) passengers" and the relatives of those who died, Power added. Sulak, he said, was "a great loss."
The company grounded all Kauai operations until tomorrow out of respect, he added, and all the helicopters in the Heli USA fleet, including those on Oahu and in Las Vegas, have undergone inspections.
"We are completely cooperating with the NTSB," he added. "Like any accident, we want to identify the true cause."
Power said Sulak was trained and had recently gone on a fly-along to demonstrate his understanding of safety procedures.
Rayner, who arrived on Kauai late Friday night from the NTSB Northeast Regional Office in Ashburn, Va., is a helicopter pilot, although he has never flown an A-Star.
The nine-member team also includes Dennis Hogenson, from the NTSB Northwest Regional office in Seattle; FAA investigators from Washington, D.C., Fort Worth, Texas and Honolulu; and representatives of the manufacturer of the AS 350 helicopter, Eurocopter, and the engine manufacturer, Turbomeca.
Besides Sulak, of Princeville, passengers John O'Donnell of East Rockaway, N.Y.; Teri McCarty of Cabot, Ark.; and Magriet Inglebrecht of Santa Maria, Calif., died in the crash, county spokeswoman Mary Daubert said.
The three survivors who were flown to the Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu are Veronica O'Donnell, James McCarty and Cornelius Scholtz, Daubert said.