Tour plane crashes
on Big Isle; 3 injured

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter
finds the plane near Milolii after
about five hours of searching

A single-engine Piper Warrior tour plane crashed near Milolii on the Big Island yesterday afternoon, injuring its pilot and two passengers.

Two people aboard the plane were being stabilized in a Big Island hospital last night after suffering second-degree burns "all over their body," said Coast Guard spokeswoman Erica Taylor.

chart One of the injured is also a diabetic, Taylor said, and was having seizures.

A U.S. Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin helicopter found the plane's wreckage two miles mauka of Mamalahoa Highway after some five hours of searching, officials said.

A third person aboard the plane apparently went searching for help and initially could not be found at the wreckage site. A Coast Guard helicopter returned to the site last night, heard the victim shouting for help and was expected to take the person to the hospital.

The plane went down at about 4:46 p.m., said acting Assistant Fire Chief Quince Mento.

A woman on the plane called in the crash to the Hawaii County Fire Department via cell phone. And by about 8 p.m., she had called back at least three times.

In her first call she told fire dispatchers that all the people on the Piper were conscious and "out of the plane," Mento said.

Later, she said there was low visibility in the area and that "they can't even see the ocean," Mento said.

The aircraft is owned and operated by the Island Hoppers tour group, which is based on the Big Island.

The woman who reported the crash was unable to give rescuers the plane's location. Mento could not confirm whether the woman was the plane's pilot.

For much of last night, Hawaii County firefighters and Coast Guard rescuers were concentrating their search in a remote area about 10 miles south of Milolii.

The plane was about 45 minutes into a circle-island tour when it apparently went down. Before the plane was found, Island Hoppers President Phil Auldridge said the area being searched fit with where the plane should have been flying at that point in the flight.

Meanwhile, about 11 people -- including firefighters and medics -- were on the ground searching for the plane.

Mento said they were trying to work their way from Mamalahoa Highway to the coastline in hopes of crossing paths with the plane.

In the air a Coast Guard C-130 was using sensors to detect electronic signals -- such as a radio -- being transmitted from the ground, said Taylor.

The Coast Guard plane's crew spent about three hours in the air before calling off their search for the night at about 9:30 p.m.

"If there's no wreckage," Taylor said, before the plane was found, "or no smoke once it gets dark, it might as well be a search on the ocean."

She said crews on the C-130 reported "very overcast and very rainy" conditions while conducting their search.

Fire officials kept two of their helicopters in the air for almost three hours before calling them back because of low visibility.

A Coast Guard helicopter remained in the air.

Mento said fire crews reported haze in the area, which is near a fairly recent lava flow.

The Coast Guard had received no signal from the Piper's emergency beacon last night.

Auldridge declined to give the age of the plane but said the Piper had never experienced any mechanical problems.

The tour company has had no accidents during its past 15 years in business, he said.

"We've had some 60,000 hours of operation in the last 15 years," he said. "They've (the planes) operated flawlessly. ... Not so much as scratched."

Auldridge said the tourists aboard the plane were adults.

However, he declined to say whether it was the pilot who made the emergency phone call to the Fire Department.

Mento said no Big Island residents called in a sighting of the plane going down last night.


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