Feds to probe Ka‘u helicopter crash that injured 6
A federal aviation accident investigator is on the way to probe the Wednesday evening tour helicopter crash in Ka‘u that left six injured.
The crash involved a Bell 407 four-blade, single-engine helicopter operated by Paradise Helicopters from the Kona International Airport at Keahole, according to an accident/incident notice filed Thursday by the Federal Aviation Administration. The involved helicopter, which the FAA said sustained “substantial” damage was manufactured in 1997.
Photos taken by rescuers showed the crunched Bell 407 helicopter lying on its side in the barren lava field with its nose partially detached and some of its blades bent at odd angles.
The FAA lists the crash as having occurred “under unknown circumstances” after departing Kona shortly after 5 p.m.
“At this time, K&S Helicopters Emergency Response Plan has been activated and the full resources of the company are being mobilized to respond to the incident,” a statement posted on Paradise Helicopters reads. “K&S Helicopters is cooperating with all authorities involved, and is also working to assist those affected.”
“The care of our passengers, crew members and their families is our highest priority” Calvin Dorn said as part of the statement.
According to the Hawaii Fire Department, the helicopter made a hard landing around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in a lava field between the Hawaiian Ranchos subdivision and South Point Road. Because of the location of the crash, medics were unable to reach the site on foot and instead flew in using both Hawaii County helicopters.
At the scene of the crash, fire rescue personnel found four people ambulatory after exiting the downed aircraft and two others with more serious injuries, according to a press release from the fire department.
One county helicopter, Chopper 1, subsequently extracted two women, ages 18 and 19, and a 23-year-old man, flying the three to ground medics staging on Menehune Drive, more than a mile from the site of the crash.
A second county helicopter — Chopper 2, which is a medical helicopter —arrived on scene shortly thereafter and extricated the most seriously injured patient: A 19-year-old woman who was also flown to awaiting ground medics who initiated advanced life saving protocols.
Once the woman was receiving care, the medical helicopter returned to the crash scene to extract the second seriously injured patient, a 54-year-old man.
In the meantime, the first county helicopter, extracted the fourth ambulatory patient, a 48-year-old man, and brought him to awaiting medics.
After the 54-year-old with serious injuries was receiving care, the 19-year-old woman was placed back in Chopper 2 and flown in critical condition to Kona Community Hospital for treatment.
The other five patients were transported by ambulance to the same Kealakekua hospital.
By press-time Thursday, all six patients were no longer receiving care at Kona Community Hospital, according to the facility. Four had been discharged after receiving care and two were transported to Oahu for additional care.
Hawaii has a thriving helicopter tour sector because of the flights that are extremely popular among tourists who want to see the islands’ stunning scenery from the aircraft that fly above rugged terrain that’s hard to reach otherwise.
A 2019 helicopter tour crash on Kauai killed all seven people on board and the NTSB in its investigative report accused regulators of lax oversight of the helicopter tours.
That crash was blamed on the pilot’s decision to keep flying despite worsening weather. Witnesses and other pilots reported fog, rain and low visibility around the time of the crash, and some pilots had turned around.
In the Big Island crash, Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth said he was awaiting updates on the conditions of the injured, and other information and information on what might have caused the crash.
The weather in the area about the time firefighters were called included winds of about 16 mph, gusts of about 23 mph and some scattered or broken clouds, Thomas Vaughan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told the Associated Press.
“Standard, afternoon weather on the Big Island,” he said.
State Sen. Chris Lee, D-Oahu, in a statement issued Thursday said there have been over “20 deaths in helicopter crashes and dozens more injured in recent years.”
“Some employees at these companies have said pilots are still being told to fly in unsafe situations. And while some companies go above and beyond to ensure safety, others continue to cut corners in an industry that communities around the state have raised significant complaints about as helicopters buzz over residential neighborhoods with greater frequency than ever,” he stated. “This kind of dangerous operation cannot be tolerated.”
Lee also pointed to Senate Bill No. 3272, which would require helicopter companies to report where, when and who they are flying, and establish a new helicopter safety working group to make recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration and local authorities for changes to how helicopter tours operate.
“Safety and respect for local communities cannot be sacrificed just so helicopter companies can pack in extra flights to boost profits,” Lee said in the prepared statement.
According to an NTSB database, the Paradise Helicopters was involved in at least two previous accidents during sightseeing tours.
While returning from a sightseeing tour in 2005, a helicopter developed a “sudden vibration in the tail rotor pedals” followed by a loud crack or snap and then a loud banging noise, the NTSB said. It hit low trees and shrubs when the pilot landed in a clearing in a forest near the Big Island town of Pahoa. The pilot and four passengers were uninjured.
And as a Paradise helicopter pilot prepared to take off in 2009 for a sightseeing tour of Oahu for four passengers, the helicopter’s left landing gear collapsed, NTSB records said. The helicopter tilted to the left and was damaged, but no one aboard was injured.
Attempts to reach Paradise Helicopters’s corporate and marketing offices were unsuccessful as of press-time Thursday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.