Hawaii’s highly changeable, localized weather could be a factor in the fatal crash of another air-tour helicopter. The NTSB is investigating the November 10 crash of a new Eurocopter EC130B4 EcoStar on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. The EcoStar was operated by Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, the launch customer for the EcoStar in 2001, and was owned by a Nevada leasing company. Blue Hawaiian president David Chevalier said the helicopter was less than a year old. The midday crash killed pilot Nathan Kline, 30, and the four tourists aboard during a 45-minute sightseeing flight from Maui to Molokai.
Witnesses at an elementary school near the crash site reported heavy rain squalls at the time of the accident. Official weather at the time was gusty winds out of the northeast from 17 to 27 knots, eight miles visibility and multiple scattered and broken cloud layers from 2,600 to 4,500 feet.
Unique Terrain, Weather Challenges
Blue Hawaiian claims to operate one of the most modern air-tour fleets in the islands and flies more than 160,000 passengers annually. Its only prior fatal accident occurred on Maui in 2000 and killed seven when an AS355F1 flew into a mountainside in low ceilings.
The NTSB cited the non instrument-rated pilot in that CFIT crash for inadvertent flight into IMC while failing to maintain sufficient altitude between clouds and terrain. Other heli-tour pilots flying in the area at the time said they modified their routes to avoid the encroaching cloud cover.
Over the years the NTSB has noted the unique challenges of helicopter flying in Hawaii, including terrain, mountain wind and rapidly changing cloud conditions. A spate of fatal heli-tour crashes in Hawaii between 2004 and 2007 brought increased criticism of, and scrutiny to, the industry. The NTSB faulted heli-tour operators for inadequately training new-hire pilots on the unique particulars of flying in Hawaii. The NTSB reviewed weather-related accidents since 1994 and found “four involved pilots who were relatively new to air-tour operations in Hawaii, three of whom had been operating for less than two months. The Board cited the pilots’ inexperience in assessing local weather conditions as a contributing factor and recommended that the FAA develop and require “a cue-based training program for pilots that specifically addresses local weather phenomena and in-flight decision-making.”
Since 2007, the Hawaiian heli-tour industry has posted an improved safety record.
According to the NTSB database, in 2010 the industry was accident-free on Part 135 flights.