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2 lost in crash of powered hang glider off Kauai

By Rob Shikina and Rosemarie Bernardo

LAST UPDATED: 10:30 p.m. HST, Feb 15, 2011

Two people were missing today after the crash of a powered hang glider in waters southwest of Port Allen, Kauai.

Kauai County said the aircraft was owned by Big Sky Kauai, a company that offers tours and lessons from Port Allen Airport.

The pilot of the downed aircraft is Jim Gaither, owner of Big Sky Kauai, Coast Guard Petty Officer Michael De Nyse said.

According to friend Gerry Charlebois, owner of Birds in Paradise, Gaither was returning from a flight lesson with a student today and approaching Port Allen Airport when he was reported overdue.

The craft was an experimental Windsports Edge XT-912L, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said in a preliminary report. Such aircraft are known as microlights or airborne trikes.

The microlight took off from Port Allen Airport and crashed about 11 a.m. in the ocean 10 miles southwest of Port Allen, Gregor said. The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board will investigate, he said.

Instructors from Birds in Paradise re-launched to look for Gaither but the water along the coastline was murky due to heavy rains, Charlebois said.

Police received a call at 11:41 a.m. from a kayaker who said she witnessed the crash off Glass Beach, Kauai officials said.

Lifeguards from Poipu responded to the call and confirmed what appeared to be wreckage and an oil slick in the water.

Kauai firefighters sent a helicopter, boat and Jet Ski to try to pinpoint the location of the wreckage. Some debris was recovered, county spokeswoman Beth Tokioka said. Divers searched about 200 yards offshore near Kalaheo. The Coast Guard was assisting in the search. The search was to continue until midnight and continue tomorrow morning in hopes the two are still alive. The Coast Guard said they were wearing life jackets.

The company's website said it operates powered hang gliders commonly known as trikes. The craft have a delta-shaped wing similar to that of a hang glider. A cylindrical fuselage in which two people can sit, one behind the other, hangs below the wing. The prop motor is at the rear of the fuselage.

The company's rates start at $135 for a 30-minute "introductory flight lesson."

Gaither, originally from Montana, has been flying for 40 years, Charlebois said. He arrived in Kauai in 2008 to help Charlebois with his powered glider business as an instructor before Gaither started his own company, Charlebois said.

Last December a Big Sky Kauai aircraft was damaged substantially, but no one was hurt, when the pilot made a precautionary landing on a golf course near Poipu, according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The incident happened about 8:30 a.m. Dec. 22 and involved an Apollo AS-III, a special light sport weight-shift control aircraft, the NTSB said.

The pilot and a passenger were not injured.

According to the report, the pilot noticed unusual back pressure on the flight controls, and also noticed that the wing trailing edge was fluttering.

The pilot decided to return to Port Allen Airport but because of concerns with the controls, decided to land on a golf course.

The craft landed on wet and uneven grass and tipped onto its left wing, fracturing part of it.

On April 21, 2010, two people died when a microlight aircraft crashed and sank in Kealakekua Bay.

The victims were pilot Tedd Robert Hecklin, 38, owner of Tedd's Flying Adventures in Kailua, Kona; and passenger Kathryn Grace Moran, 37, of Kailua, Kona. The crash happened 20 minutes after the aircraft took off from Kona airport. Tedd's Flying Adventures had advertised "powered hang gliding flights around the Big Island."

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