On Wednesday, June 8, 2022, a Bell 407 helicopter operated by Paradise Helicopters was on a flightseeing tour on Big Island, Hawaii, when it crashed, injuring all six persons on board, including numerous serious injuries. The accident occurred on a small lava field near South Point at the southern tip of the island after they had flown approximately 30 minutes from Kona International Airport. The hard-to-access accident site was more than one mile from the nearest road, requiring the use of emergency helicopters to rescue and fly out the injured passengers and pilot. At least three people had to be extricated from the wreckage.
The helicopter was operated by Paradise Helicopters out of Kona, which is one of the trade names used for the on-demand (14 CFR Part 135) certificate holder K & S Helicopters, Inc. of Hawaii. The weather near the time of the accident was not unusual, with winds of 16 mph (including gusts to 23 mph) and scattered to broken clouds.
Hawaii’s location, tropical climate, and unique topography make it a world-renowned tourist destination. Many of the Hawaiian Islands’ most beautiful scenery are hard to access by vehicle and on foot, thus giving rise to many successful helicopter air tour operators throughout the islands.
Since 2010 the number of air tour operators in Hawaii has doubled, and the number of flights have increased by 67%. Unfortunately, 2019 was one of the most deadly years for air tour helicopter operators in Hawaii, with four separate accidents resulting in 10 deaths – the most in nearly 20 years. In 2018 there were six accidents. Most of the accidents in Hawaii since 2000 have been attributed to weather, mechanical/maintenance failure, and pilot error. In 2008 the FAA issued its Hawaii Air Tour Common Procedures Manual, which sets forth specific flight procedures for commercial air tour operators flying below 1500 feet above the ground. This did not seem to cause a significant reduction in air tour accidents.
The worst accident since 2010 was on December 26, 2019, on Kauai, involving an Airbus AS350 helicopter operated by Safari Helicopters, which crashed into a steep hillside killing the pilot and six passengers. In its May 10, 2022, scathing report citing the pilot’s fatal decision to continue the flight from visual conditions into instrument conditions in the clouds, which caused the helicopter to crash into obscured terrain, the NTSB also went after the FAA. The NTSB found that the FAA delayed implementing a Hawaii aviation weather camera program, exhibited a lack of leadership to develop a cue-based weather training program for Hawaii air tour pilots, and had ineffective monitoring and oversight of air tour operational practices related to weather. The NTSB recognized the severity of the problem:
Since 1997, the NTSB has investigated 41 air tour accidents in Hawaii, 15 of which were fatal. Of those 41 accidents, 9 involved a pilot’s decision to continue flight under visual flight rules (VFR) into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Those nine accidents resulted in 51 deaths, 51 preventable deaths.
In all, the NTSB issued ten new safety recommendations to the FAA and industry in its report and reiterated 11 previously published proposals.
Current federal aviation regulations allow air tour operators to do what airlines cannot: fly in marginal weather conditions in hilly and mountainous terrain and sometimes very close to the ground. Consequently, there are more accidents per passenger flight hour during air tour flights than on airline flights.
Paradise Helicopters is also not without prior incidents, this is its fourth accident. On January 21, 2005, a tail rotor malfunction in an MD 369E caused an emergency landing into low trees and shrubs, but the passengers and pilot were not injured. Four years later, in 2009, on Oahu, the left landing gear collapsed, causing the helicopter to roll on landing, but despite damage to the helicopter, there were no injuries. On April 16, 2019, a Paradise Helicopters MD 369 ran out of fuel on a flight over Oahu at 1700 feet above the ground. After the engine lost power, the pilot autorotated the helicopter through a tree canopy and came to rest upside down. At least one of the passengers was injured.
While the cause of June 8, 2022, Paradise Helicopters crash is not known, NTSB investigators will be considering many possible scenarios, including weather and if the helicopter was flying at a location an altitude where, if there were an engine failure, a safe autorotation might have been impossible due to rough surface terrain. While the factual and probable cause reports may not be out for 12 months or more, since the pilot and passengers survived, Paradise Helicopters is likely aware of safety factors related to the accident.
Aviation Law Group attorneys have, and continue to handle, a wide variety of helicopter accidents in the U.S., including in Hawaii, Alaska, and in Canada. These include scenic air tour flights. ALG attorneys have also flown as commercial pilots air tours in scenic and mountainous terrain. Two attorneys are also FAA certified aviation mechanics, including one with FAA inspection authority.