The owner of a Kauai powered-glider flight school company and a passenger are presumed dead after their small sport aircraft crashed yesterday in the ocean off Kauai’s south shore.
Kauai County and Coast Guard rescue personnel searched waters about 200 yards offshore from Kauai Coffee Co. in Kalaheo after a kayaker reported at 11:41 a.m. seeing an aircraft go down, officials said.
The Coast Guard planned to search until midnight last night and resume the search this morning, as will Kauai County personnel. The Coast Guard said the pilot and passenger were wearing life jackets.
The 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.
His passenger is a 49-year-old female visitor, the Coast Guard said. Her name was being withheld pending notification of her family.
According Gerry Charlebois, owner of the Birds in Paradise flight operation and a friend of Gaither’s, Gaither was returning from a flight lesson with a student and approaching Port Allen Airport when he was reported overdue.
The craft was a non-experimental Windsports Edge XT-912L, Ian Gregor, a spokesman of the Federal Aviation Administration, said in a preliminary report. Gregor said two people were killed in the crash.
The company’s website said it operates powered hang gliders. The craft — also known as microlights or airborne trikes — have delta-shaped wings similar to those of a hang glider. A cylindrical fuselage in which two people can sit, one behind the other, hangs below the wing. A prop motor is at the rear of the fuselage.
Three companies on Kauai fly powered hang gliders.
Steve Sprague, owner of Kauai Aerosports, said powered-glider flights have been in Hawaii for more than 20 years and that accidents are extremely rare.
Two people died April 21 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.
In 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 at 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.
Kauai flight instructors said Gaither is an excellent pilot and were perplexed as to what caused the accident. "It’s a tragic, tragic accident," Charlebois said.
Gaither, 55, moved to Hawaii in 2008, Charlebois said. Gaither helped Charlebois with his business as a flight instructor before he started his own company in February 2009, Charlebois said.
In a video on Big Sky Kauai’s website, Gaither says he’s been flying for 33 years and in three years on Kauai has flown trikes more than 2,400 hours.
"I feel actually better in the air than I do on the ground," he said. "God has blessed me with this passion for flying and it has never left or escaped.
"Anytime I’m on the ground, I’m looking skyward, wishing to be in the air, and when I’m in the air there’s no place like being closer to heaven."
Gaither grew up in Minnesota and moved in 1978 to Montana, where he was a building contractor, said his former wife, Sue Gaither, by phone from her home in Great Falls, Mont.
He began hang gliding in the early 1980s, she said.
"He fell in love with the sport, and he’s been hooked on it ever since," Sue Gaither said. "It was his passion, and when there would be certain meets around the state, he would always be there."
Gaither also enjoys windsurfing and has surfed reservoirs in Montana and the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.
"He was always a thrill-seeker," she said.
On Kauai, Sprague and Charlebois canceled their flights scheduled for today out of respect for Gaither.
Following yesterday’s 911 call, lifeguards from Poipu went to the site and confirmed what appeared to be wreckage and an oil slick in the water, a Kauai County spokeswoman said.
The Coast Guard launched a C-130 plane, an HH-65 helicopter and a 31-foot boat in search of the two people, focusing their search about 300 yards off the south side of Kauai near Port Allen Airport. Divers from the Kauai Fire Department also participated in the search efforts.
Kauai County said some debris was recovered. The Coast Guard’s De Nyse said there were no signs of deployed parachutes.
Sprague, owner of Kauai Aerosports, said he saw Gaither fly over his house in Kalaheo about 30 minutes before he received the call from Charlebois that Gaither was missing.
"The direction he was going, he was heading toward Port Allen. It was the last leg of the flight before going to the airport," Sprague said.
CORRECTION: The powered glider that crashed off Kauai Tuesday was an Edge XT-912-L "light sport aircraft." Headlines and a caption in a previous version of this story referred to it as an ultralight craft. The Edge XT-912-L, manufactured by Airborne Windsports, is not an experimental aircraft. Also, Big Sky Kauai is a powered-glider flight school company, not a tour business as was reported.