HONOLULU, HI – Tour helicopter operations in Hawaii have come under increased scrutiny after the deadly crash this week, one of several recent accidents in the state, with a congressman calling the trips unsafe and lacking proper oversight.
There were no survivors of a Thursday tour helicopter crash that killed three minors and four adults, officials confirmed Saturday.
The helicopter that was set to tour the rugged Na Pali Coast, the picturesque and remote northern shoreline of Kauai that was featured in the film “Jurassic Park,” crashed on a mountaintop Thursday.
The remains of six people were recovered Friday and the seventh is still missing. Kauai police confirmed there were no survivors based in part on the nature of the crash and impact damage, officials said in a statement. Recovery efforts were suspended Saturday afternoon.
There were six people from two different families and a pilot on the flight.
U.S. Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii cited fatal accidents over the years, blaming the Federal Aviation Administration for not taking National Transportation Safety Board safety improvement efforts seriously and the industry for not regulating itself.
“Tour helicopter and small aircraft operations are not safe, and innocent lives are paying the price,” said Case, a Democrat. “In our Hawaii alone, the industry, while stridently arguing that it is safe and sensitive to neighborhoods, has in fact ignored any sensible safety improvements, instead dramatically increasing in recent years its volume of flights, at all times of day and night, in seemingly all weather over more residential neighborhoods and to more risky and remote locations, at lower altitudes, while completely failing to address ground safety and community disruption concerns."
The FAA, however, said it conducts regular surveillance on all Hawaii air tour operators and ensures companies address any issues, agency spokesman Ian Gregor said in an email. He said the FAA does not have concerns about the industry statewide.
Police on Kauai have preliminary identifications for three of the seven people aboard Thursday’s helicopter tour that crashed in a remote part of Hawaii.
In a statement Saturday, police said the flight manifest listed the pilot as Paul Matero, 69, of Wailua, Hawaii. Two passengers were named as 47-year-old Amy Gannon and 13-year-old Jocelyn Gannon of Wisconsin. Amy Gannon’s friend Dorecia Carr said Gannon’s death would rattle the city of Madison.
“She is very important, I mean she owns a huge business in Madison that helps so many people,” Carr said. “The city is going to be really shaken.”
Amy Gannon co-founded a nonprofit company that helped female entrepreneurs succeed. Carr also said Gannon mentored her 17-year-old son AJ Carr.
Dorecia Carr said when she didn’t have enough money to move to allow her son pursue his acting career, Gannon put up the money for them to go. AJ Carr has appeared in “Chicago P.D.,” “This Is Us,” and “All American.”
“She did so much. She paid for us to leave Madison because she believed in him,” Dorecia Carr said. “So much happened because of her. This is a huge loss.”
Madison Metropolitan School District spokesman Tim LeMonds confirmed that Jocelyn Gannon was an eighth grader attending Hamilton Middle School.
“Our community has lost a wonderful young person," the district said in a letter sent Saturday to students.
Dorecia Carr said Gannon’s husband and son were not on Thursday’s flight and are still in Hawaii.
The four other passengers, including two girls who were 10 and 13 years old, are believed to be from Switzerland, police said, but their identities have not yet been released.
Autopsies are still pending.
The helicopter company, identified as Safari Helicopters, contacted the Coast Guard on Thursday evening after the tour did not return to the airport as scheduled. A search began but steep terrain, low visibility, choppy seas and rain complicated the search.
A person who answered the phone at a number listed for Safari Helicopters declined to comment, but the owner released a statement Saturday saying, “The Safari Helcopter family, along with the broader community, mourn the loss of seven lives that were on Thursday’s sightseeing flight." Owner Preston Myers added that the pilot, Matero, had 12 years of experience on Kauai and called him a “seasoned member of our team.”
According to a preliminary report, the pilot said the tour was leaving the Waimea Canyon area, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific," about 4:40 p.m., which was the last contact with the helicopter, Kauai police said.
The FAA's Gregor said the agency is looking at the company's safety record but likely won't have a full report until Monday. The NTSB announced Friday that it was sending three investigators to Kauai.
The NTSB aviation accident database lists nine crashes of Hawaii helicopter sightseeing flights in the last 10 years, including three with fatalities.
After a Hawaii skydiving plane crashed and killed 11 people in June, the NTSB called on the FAA to tighten its regulations governing parachute operations. The FAA said at the time that it had made changes to address NTSB recommendations.
Towering mountains with deep ravines and huge waterfalls make up the interior of the uninhabited state park where the helicopter crashed this week. Red rock cliffs with thick jungle canopies rise from the Pacific Ocean to over 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) high.
Ladd Sanger, a Texas-based aviation attorney and helicopter pilot who has handled several crash cases involving similar helicopters in Hawaii, said tour operators on Kauai face unique challenges because of weather and topography.
Kauai “has microclimates, so the weather at the airport is going to be different than up at the crash location,” Sanger said. “Those microclimates can come on very quickly and dissipate quickly too, so the weather reporting is difficult.”
Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources spokesman Dan Dennison said winter brings more rain and turbulent seas.
“You can have very low ceilings. You can have fog and cloud banks that move in very quickly. You can have heavy rain and strong winds that make flying difficult if not impossible at times,” he said.
The shoreline has beaches that could potentially serve as emergency landing zones, but they are “few and far between,” Dennison said.
And even the beaches that are there would be a tight spot to land a helicopter.
“Kauai is incredibly unforgiving terrain,” Sanger said. “If you lose the engine there’s just really no place to land on the tour route that they were flying.”
This story has been corrected to show that Sanger said Kauai is unforgiving terrain, not Dennison.