NTSB Releases Preliminary Report into Fatal Kaua‘i Chopper Crash

January 16, 2020, 6:00 AM HST (Updated January 16, 2020, 7:15 AM)
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A preliminary report into the fatal helicopter crash in Kaua‘i last month was released by the National Transportation Safety Board.

On Dec. 26, a pilot and six passengers were killed after the Safari tour helicopter collided with terrain about 24 miles northwest of Līhu‘e.

According to the NTSB report, the pilot was returning from his eighth and last scheduled 50-minute aerial tour for the day. At about 4:32 p.m., the pilot radioed Safari Helicopters’ headquarters reporting a departure time of 4:31 p.m. Shortly thereafter, another company pilot heard the pilot report his position at “Tree Tunnel,” an air tour reporting point, on the common traffic advisory frequency, the report indicates.

At about 4:45 p.m., the report states, a pilot from another tour company heard the Safari Helicopters pilot report his position at “Upper Mic” exiting Waimea Canyon and was beginning a transition over to the Na Pali coastline via Koke‘e State Park.

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The helicopter was due back at 5:20 p.m. at Līhu‘e Airport but was 10 minutes overdue. Flight-locating procedures began at that point.

“An extensive search was initiated, and search operations were conducted by personnel from Safari Helicopters, the US Coast Guard, the Kaua‘i Fire Department, the Kaua‘i Police Department, the Civil Air Patrol, and the Hawai‘i Air National Guard,” the report states.

The accident site was found the next day at about 9:32 a.m. within Koke‘e State Park. The report indicates that the helicopter impacted tropical mountainous terrain on a north facing slope at an elevation of about 3,003 feet mean sea level (msl) and came to rest at an elevation of about 2,900 feet msl.

“All of the helicopter’s major components were located within the debris field, and the wreckage
was largely consumed by a postcrash fire,” according to the report.

NTSB spoke to a witness who was on a trail within Koke‘e when the crash occurred. The hiker was about 1.5 to 1.75 miles up the Nualolo Trail at the time of the accident. He indicated weather conditions of rain and fog with 20 feet visibility.

“He heard what he described as a hovering helicopter followed by a high-pitched whine,” the report states. “Knowing something was wrong, he attempted to locate the helicopter but was unable due to the adverse weather conditions and fading daylight.”

The closest official weather observation station to the accident site was Barking Sands Pacific
Missile Range Facility (PABK), located about nine miles southwest of the accident site. The 4:56 p.m. observation reported wind from 310 degrees at 12 knots, gusting to 15 knots; 10 statute miles visibility; few clouds at 1,200 feet, broken clouds at 3,400-4,700 feet and overcast clouds at 6,000 feet.

The figure above shows a typical tour route via Tree Tunnel to Upper Mic, as described by
Safari Helicopters. The accident site is noted in the upper left portion of the figure. As the
accident helicopter did not have flight tracking equipment onboard, the exact flight path is
unavailable.

NTSB states this is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

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