A witness hiking along a nearby trail reported heavy rain and fog at the time a tour helicopter crashed into a cliff face on Kauai in December, killing all seven people aboard, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
The male hiker at Kokee State Park reported only 20 feet of visibility at the time, according to the NTSB, which released the report Wednesday.
He knew something was wrong when he heard a high-pitched whine, and tried to locate the helicopter, but was unable to due to adverse weather and fading daylight.
The NTSB reported that the Airbus AS350 B2 helicopter operated by Safari Helicopters was destroyed by impact forces and a post-crash fire after striking the cliff face.
The helicopter had left Lihue Airport at 4:31 p.m. on Dec. 26 under visual flight rules, meaning the pilot would fly based on sight without instruments.
It was the pilot’s eighth and last scheduled 50- minute aerial tour flight of the day.
The pilot, identified as Paul Matero, 69, of Wailua, had radioed Safari Helicopters’ headquarters of his departure time about 4:30 p.m.
He was believed to have been following a regular tour route, and shortly thereafter reported his location as “Tree Tunnel,” and then about 15 minutes later as “Upper Mic,” which means he was exiting Waimea Canyon and heading over to the Na Pali coastline via Kokee State Park.
The helicopter did not have flight tracking equipment on board, so its exact flight path remains unknown.
That was the last time the veteran pilot was heard from. An extensive search commenced at 5:31 p.m. when the helicopter’s return was 10 minutes overdue.
The following day, about 9:30 a.m., Kauai County officials announced they had found the helicopter wreckage within Kokee State Park, about 1.3 miles inland of where it had struck a cliff face.
The report said the helicopter had hit a north facing slope at an elevation of about 3,000 feet before coming to a rest 100 feet below. Investigators found all of the helicopter’s major components within the debris field, but the wreckage was largely consumed by a post-crash fire.
The helicopter crash site, among steep cliffs and thick jungle, also posed a challenge.
The weather at the closest official weather observation station — Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility — about 9 miles from the crash site, reported winds at 12 to 25 knots, 10 miles of visibility and broken clouds at an elevation of 3,400 and 4,700 feet.
The six passengers who died due to fatal injuries from the crash have been identified as visitors from two families — Sylvie Winteregg, 50, Christophe Winteregg, 49, Alice Winteregg, 13, and Agathe Winteregg, 10, of Switzerland; and Amy Gannon, 47, and Jocelyn Gannon, 13, of Madison, Wis.
The Kauai Police Department said Wednesday that the positive identification of the victims — previously released on a preliminary basis — was expedited with the help of advanced DNA technology.
“The findings we made would have typically taken weeks but we were able to complete them in-house within a short period of time so that we could bring some sense of closure to the families and friends of the victims,” said Kauai Police Chief Todd G. Raybuck in a news release. “I really want to thank everyone at KPD, and all of our partner agencies, for their hard work throughout this entire investigation. I also want to express my deepest condolences again to those who lost their loved ones in this terrible tragedy.”
U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who introduced the “Safe and Quiet Skies Act” last year, said the report only added to growing concerns about the inadequate regulation of commercial air tours in Hawaii.
“A pilot flying his eighth 50-minute tour in one day,” said Case in a statement. “Without instrument certification and flying in a rough and variable terrain, rapidly changing weather environment, on visual flight rules only. According to a close-by witness and other observations, probably in ‘20 ft visibility in rain and fog.’ No flight tracking equipment aboard.”
Case noted 21 individuals were killed in Hawaii in three accidents in 2019 alone, which should “spark unanimous concern” for the basic safety of these operations.
“Yet the air tour helicopter and small aircraft industry buries its head in the sand, claims all is well and refuses to acknowledge any concern or need to change, compounded by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is supposed to be ensuring safety, claiming that there is no reason to suspect any general industry concern,” he said. “The tragedy is not only the loss of life but the industry’s position … an open invitation to further tragedies that very well might strike not only those in the air (but) the million-plus on the ground that they fly over repeatedly every day.”
Robert Katz, a commercial pilot and certified flight instructor, said based on information in the report, it appeared the pilot encountered rapidly changing weather he was not qualified to handle.
“Weather observations taken at Barking Sands indicate the likelihood that this pilot encountered a confluence of factors leading to the development of cloud, fog, rain and mist which could instantly reduce visibility to ZERO,” he wrote in an email. “This pilot did not possess the Instrument Helicopter qualification and demonstrated skill required to maintain his orientation … and therefore, control of that helicopter when flying in ZERO visibility.”
This scenario, he said, is entirely preventable, but has repeated itself hundreds of times before in the history of aviation, and is, sadly, “most common in Hawaii.”
The NTSB investigator in charge was David Banning, with participation from Patrick Lusch of the FAA.
A final report, including a probable cause, typically takes 12 to 24 months, according to the NTSB.
20200114_WEB_Kauai Copter Crash Report by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd