Curtis Tate USA TODAY Dec 30, 2019
A tour helicopter that crashed in Hawaii last week may have been doomed by rugged terrain and rapidly changing weather conditions, a pilot and aviation attorney said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating Thursday’s crash, in a remote part of the island of Kauai. The pilot and six passengers were killed and recovery efforts have been suspended.
Ladd Sanger, a helicopter pilot and attorney who’s worked on previous crashes of tour helicopters, said the area can pose challenges for even the most seasoned pilots.
“The topography is amazing,” he said. “Really, the only way for a person to see it is from an airplane or a helicopter.”
Though the scenery is breathtaking, viewing it comes at a risk. Sanger, who’s flown the same tour of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, said the ruggedness of the terrain makes it all but impossible to make an emergency landing.
“There is not a level surface that isn’t covered with vegetation,” he said.
Hawaii helicopter crash: Police confirm pilot, six passengers died
He added that the weather conditions are all but impossible to know before taking off, and pilots may encounter unexpected clouds or winds. Making matters worse, conditions can change rapidly in just a few miles or in a difference of a few thousand feet of elevation.
“These clouds can form in no time at all,” he said. “You don’t know that from the airport.”
Sanger said that tour operators and pilots should have more discretion to cancel when the conditions aren’t favorable. And if customers don’t feel comfortable flying, they should voice their concerns to the tour operator.
“Consumers have a vote in this, too,” he said. “Speak up. Say, ‘I don’t want to continue.’ “
The question you should ask before you fly
Sanger said customers should ask whether the company operates a single-engine or dual-engine helicopter. A dual-engine helicopter is better in an emergency, he said, since one can operate if the other fails.
He added that if it’s cloudy and windy, that might be a sign that it isn’t safe to go.
Besides, he said, poor weather conditions can make tours less enjoyable.
“You want a smooth ride and you want to be able to see things,” Sanger said. “For the customer, why even take the chance?”