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Schatz and Hirono introduce legislation to protect skydiving, air tour passengers

                                National Transportation Safety Board investigator Eliott Simpson briefs NTSB Board Member Jennifer Homendy at the scene of a skydiving crash on Oahu in 2019.


    National Transportation Safety Board investigator Eliott Simpson briefs NTSB Board Member Jennifer Homendy at the scene of a skydiving crash on Oahu in 2019.

U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono today introduced new legislation aimed to help protect passengers on air tours as well as improve the safety of skydiving flights in Hawaii and across the U.S.

The Air Tour and Skydiving Safety Improvement Act would require small aircraft tour operators to install a crash-resistant “black box” on all aircrafts, monitor flights remotely for potential safety risks, and train and install warning systems for remote terrain flights.

According to Schatz, more than 4,500 people nationwide have died on smaller, less regulated air tours since 2019.

“The tragic number of air tour accidents we’ve seen in Hawaii have made it clear that we need to do more to protect passengers and pilots,” said Schatz in the release. “Our new bill will apply essential safety standards recommended by the [National Transportation Safety Board], protecting passengers and improving the safety of air tours for everyone.”

Schatz said currently, due to a gap in federal law, certain small commercial air tour operators are subject to less stringent safety standards – known as “Part 91” under U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations – intended for small, private recreational flights.

Most commercial air tours and charter flight operators are subject to more rigorous safety and training standards known as “Part 135.”

And yet, while Part 135 flights are safer on average, more than 60 people have died in flights under both Part 91 and 135 operations in Hawaii, with half of those fatalities occurring over the last 18 months.

The Schatz-Hirono bill seeks to close the loophole for Part 91 commercial operators while improving Part 135 regulations to be more in line with those of larger flight operations, as recommended by the NTSB.

The new legislation implements recommendations that the NTSB made on skydiving flights following its investigation into the tragic skydiving plane crash that killed 11 people on Oahu’s North Shore in Hawaii last year.

In that incident, a twin-engine Beechcraft BE65 at Dillingham Airfield scheduled for a sunset sky dive collided with the ground shortly after takeoff and erupted in fire on June 21, 2019, killing all 11 on board.

Schatz said he was prompted to introduce the act following that tragedy, and that the Beechcraft was operating under “Part 91” regulations.

In addition, Schatz said he would like to require pilots to receive specific training for skydiving flights, which require a particular skill set. The bill would standardize maintenance and pilot training programs for the unique needs of skydiving operations.

Commercial skydiving operations have been grounded by Gov. David Ige’s “stay-at-home” orders since March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Frank Hinshaw, longtime operator of Skydive Hawaii at Dillingham Airfield, said he was waiting for the green light to get up and running again.

He said would be happy to install a black box, but that he was not aware of any available for small aircraft at an economical cost less than the plane itself. Nor is there insurance for skydivers on board the planes he runs, he said, which would be just as important.

“Our pilots are professional,” he said. “We already have something where we remotely track our aircraft.”

Schatz said the bill covers helicopter tour operations, as well, which have had their share of tragic accidents in Hawaii in recent years.

“We can improve the safety of these operators by putting them under a more rigorous inspection regime with better technology, better tracking and tougher requirements,” he said.

The bill would also require the Federal Aviation Administration to develop uniform national safety standards.

“It is critical that the helicopters and planes taking visitors and residents sightseeing or parachuting operate as safely as possible,” said Hirono in the release. “The legislation we are introducing will strengthen the rules to ensure accountability and safety for Hawaii’s aviation operators and travelers. We have waited long enough for action by the Federal Aviation Administration after too many tragedies.”

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