More oversight possible for air-tour operators

 - November 29, 2007, 6:09 AM

The NTSB is calling for stricter FAA en route surveillance of Grand Canyon area air-tour operators based on its findings from two fatal helicopter accidents there in 2001 and 2003 involving Papillon Airways and Sundance Helicopters. In a Safety Recommendation issued last month, the Safety Board said the pilots involved in those crashes had a history of reckless flying and did not abide by guidelines established under the industry’s Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS), even though both companies were participants in the program.

In the Papillon crash, the NTSB found that the pilot had a history of “flying the helicopter toward terrain while deliberately keeping his head turned toward the back of the cabin until the passengers screamed for him to turn around. In addition, the accident site was located in an area where the pilot was known to perform high-speed, diving descents during tours to show passengers what it was like to drive a car off a cliff.”

In addition to the stepped-up FAA surveillance, the NTSB called for a tightening of the TOPS program to include more rigorous safety audits and more precise language in the audit program guidance materials.

The United States Air Tour Association branded the facts contained in the NTSB safety recommendation as “misleading.” At press time, the HAI’s Helicopter Tour Operators Committee was meeting in Las Vegas to discuss the safety recommendation and related issues. The FAA has 90 days to formally respond to the NTSB’s recommendations.