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Intersting Article on Helo Safety in sightseeing/in HI


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Is helicopter flightseeing hazardous to your health?


By James Gilden

Special to the Tribune

Published April 8, 2007


Sometimes the best way to see what's on the ground is from the air, which prompts thousands of travelers to take sightseeing flights over some of Earth's beloved landscapes.


But two recent fatal crashes in Hawaii, both involving helicopters and both on Kauai, again raise the question of how safe these bird's-eye views might be.


On March 8, a Heli-USA Airways sightseeing helicopter crashed at Princeville Airport, killing the pilot and three passengers and seriously injuring three other passengers. Three days later, one person was killed and three others were seriously injured when a sightseeing helicopter operated by Smoky Mountain Helicopters Inc. went down in Haena.


Including last month's accidents, 35 people have died in Hawaii helicopter sightseeing flights since 1995, which was the first full year for new Federal Aviation Administration rules governing Hawaiian air tour operators.


Steve Bassett, president of the Laurel, Md.-based U.S. Air Tours Association, an air tour industry group, defends flightseeing as "an extremely safe industry."


"When you end up in a situation like [two fatal accidents within days of each other], the entire industry gets tarred and feathered," he said.


Still, tourists continue to flock to these air tours, according to the group. Two million tourists climbed on board such flights in the U.S. in 2004, from New York to Hawaii. Most sightseeing-flight accidents occurred in some of the country's more rugged and beautiful terrain.


In the last 10 years, there have been 20 helicopter sightseeing tour accidents in Hawaii, 10 in Arizona, eight in Alaska and one in New York.


Nationally, accident rates are about a quarter that of flights on general aviation planes (private planes operated usually by non-professional pilots) but 10 times greater than that of a commercial airline.


Most air tour operators fly under rules for "non-scheduled air carriers," which mandate more rigorous training, pilot experience and maintenance standards than general aviation but less rigorous than those for commercial air carriers.


In 2006, these non-scheduled air carriers had 54 accidents (17 were helicopter accidents and, of those, six were sightseeing flights), according to data from the National Transportation Safety Board.


Reducing the number of accidents is a priority for government and the air tour industry.


In February, the FAA issued new rules that require sightseeing helicopters to be equipped with flotation devices as well as personal flotation devices for helicopter flights that are not near shore. In Hawaii, that means any inter-island flight but not those that take off and land on the same island. Operators have 18 months to comply with the new rule.


The NTSB, whose role it is to investigate crashes and then make recommendations to the FAA, thinks that the FAA should be doing more. In its final report issued last month on a 2004 fatal helicopter crash in Hawaii, the NTSB charged the FAA with "not providing direct surveillance and enforcement" of the special rules for operating air tours in Hawaii.


Those rules require flying above 1,500 feet and the preflight completion of a "performance plan" that takes into account such factors as weight of the passengers, air temperature and altitude of the planned flight.


"Flying in the mountains and the elevations of the islands is so much different than flying in other parts of the world," said Basset of the air tours association.


His organization is in favor of more stringent training of pilots and oversight by the FAA but objects to the altitude requirements of the rules.


"It takes away some of the beauty of the flight," he said.


The altitude requirement was instituted in part to address the concerns of tourists on the ground who don't want their experience spoiled by the sound of a helicopter buzzing overhead, said Bassett, but flying too low can also have tragic consequences. A tour helicopter went down in Hawaii in 1994 when its pilot flew too close to an active volcano steam vent that caused a whiteout condition from the steam and the pilot lost sight of the ground. Another went down in 1991 when the pilot flew near the ground downwind from an active volcanic vent and the gases from the vent caused the engine to quit.


No one was seriously injured in either of these accidents, but they are among the reasons the FAA adopted the special rules for Hawaii in 1995. And the NTSB is concerned that lax oversight of the rules by the FAA is putting passengers at risk.


"Pilots continue to violate [the special rules] . . . either intentionally or unintentionally, thus placing themselves and their passengers at unnecessary risk for accidents, particularly in marginal weather conditions," the NTSB report said.


The FAA employs 38 aviation safety inspectors at its Honolulu office, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. Of those, 13 are assigned to air tour inspections.


"Our function is to go in periodically to make sure maintenance that is supposed to be preformed is being performed, do spot inspections on the ramp, do check rides with pilots," said Gregor. They also look at training programs, emergency preparedness and perform inspections of the aircraft.


Still, the FAA is taking the NTSB's concerns seriously.


"We're looking at their recommendations and will get back to them," said Gregor.


Travelers who want the thrill of a helicopter ride can do several things to reduce the risk.


The NTSB maintains an online database ( www.ntsb.gov/ntsb/query.asp) with accident information searchable by state and type of aircraft, but not by operator. (A chart listing accidents by tour operator is at www.theinternettraveler.com/helicopter.html.)


To be safe, Bassett says travelers should choose a commercial air tour operator that is advertised as a "Part 135" carrier, the FAA's designation for carriers subject to higher standards than general aviation operators.


Travelers also should pay attention to the pilot's safety instructions and ask how to get out of the helicopter in case of an accident, especially if flying over water.


Ask questions if there is any uncertainty, especially if the pilot fails to provide pre-takeoff instructions.

Edited by klas
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