ASSOCIATED PRESS / MARCH 2007
Investigators examine the wreckage of a crashed tour helicopter near Princeville Airport on Kauai. The helicopter crash killed four people, including the pilot, and critically injured three, officials said.
Isles halve copter-tour crashes
Hawaii's two accidents in 2007 account for all U.S. fatalities involving whirlybird sightseeing
Helicopter tour accidents in Hawaii dropped last year but accounted for all the fatalities in such crashes nationwide.
The number of helicopter tour accidents in Hawaii declined to two in 2007 from four in 2006, while crashes nationwide declined to six from 10, according to National Transportation Safety Board statistics.
But the number of fatalities in Hawaii jumped to five from zero over the same periods, according to NTSB statistics. The rest of the country did not report any fatalities last year.
The five fatalities in Hawaii in 2007 occurred in two helicopter tour accidents on Kauai: a March 8 crash in Princeville with four dead and three seriously injured, and a March 11 crash in Haena killing one and seriously injuring three. Pilots in both crashes complained about mechanical failures.
According to NTSB statistics, Hawaii accounted for about a quarter of helicopter tour accidents nationwide in the last 10 years, and half of the fatalities from these accidents occurred in the islands.
Hawaii had 19 helicopter tour accidents from 1998 to 2007, compared with 78 accidents nationwide. Thirty-five people have died in sightseeing helicopter accidents in Hawaii from 1998 to 2007, compared with 69 people for the same period nationally, according to NTSB statistics.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said federal officials intensified their efforts on Hawaii tour safety last year, following two fatal crashes.
Gregor said the FAA established a safety inspection unit that is dedicated to reviewing air tour operations.
The federal agency also held safety meetings in Hawaii with FAA safety officials, air tour operators and the Helicopter Association International.
Dave Chevalier, a board member of the Helicopter Association International, said that in general the helicopters have improved mechanically but that there needs to be improvement in the work of maintenance personnel.
Chevalier, chief executive officer of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, said the FAA has increased inspections of tour helicopters in Hawaii and that he supports the agency's decision.
"Everybody is absolutely committed to zero accidents," Chevalier said.
Chevalier said the number of helicopter tour flights has significantly risen since the 1980s, increasing the chances of accidents.
New aviation rules for air tours, implemented first in Hawaii in the mid-1990s, were expanded on March 1, 2007, to apply to sightseeing tours across the United States.
The new national sightseeing aviation rules call for helicopters flying over water to be equipped with flotation equipment and for helicopters and airplanes to fly a minimum altitude of 1,500 feet from the water's surface except during takeoffs and landings.
Gregor said the new national rule gives pilots more space to recover from a flight problem and also more room for maneuvers.
"As you can see, the number of accidents plummeted in 2007," Gregor said. "Although it's difficult to draw firm conclusions from one year's worth of data, the sharp drop in air tour accidents in 2007 is a very encouraging sign."