The Hawaiian Helicopter Tour Industry is Big Business. Each year, more than 1 million people take an aerial tour of Hawaii. That equates to one out of every 10 visitors to the islands. Most of the tours are in helicopters. The business generates more than $200 million annually, and supports countless jobs.
A helicopter is a great way to take in the islands’ natural beauty. And that is what the tour companies sell. "Fly into the heart and heat of an active volcano" advertised one operator. "Fly close enough to feel the waterfall’s cooling mist" offered another.
But the Helicopter Safety Record is Terrible. Flying too close to the terrain features, tangling with the islands’ unpredictable "micro-weather," and substandard maintenance practices have resulted in a long list of fatal accidents. As a result, year after year, Hawaii’s aviation safety record stacks up
as one of the worst of any state in the country. Some statistics: 20 Hawaiian air tour crashes occurred in one three-year period alone. Within one two-week period, two separate tour crashes claimed five lives. Kauai seems to be the most lethal of the islands, with 18 fatalities occurring over one four-year period. The bottom line: 40 people have died in Hawaiian sightseeing flights since 1995.
Are the Statistics Improving? So reports the Honolulu Advertiser. But that’s a stretch. Just look at the chart accompanying the article, which appears below. Only the most optimistic industry booster could find a positive trend worth noting. (Note: the chart shows fatal accidents only, not the total fatalities resulting from those accidents.)
But at Least the Industry Has Gotten A Wake-Up Call, Right? Well, that’s what it claims. There were two helicopter crashes in 2007, and the industry says those two crashes changed everything. Did they?
Take a look: The first crash in 2007 involved Heli-USA, one of Hawaii’s largest helicopter tour operators. That crash killed 4 tourists and injured 3. The National Transportation Safety Board’s report, published this past January, found that the crash was caused by Heli-USA’s sloppy maintenance practices. It seems that Heli-USA mechanics were not tightening nuts properly on the company’s helicopters. That’s because they weren’t following the manufacturer’s manuals as required by the FAA regulations. Maybe it’s hard to blame the mechanics, because the only manuals Heli-USA had on hand were three revisions out of date. In fact, the NTSB determined that the crash wasn’t caused by a mechanic simply having a bad day, but by a shoddy maintenance program that falls well short of meeting basic FAA regulations.
And that 2007 crash was Heli-USA’s second fatal Hawaii crash in 2 years. So did Heli-USA finally get the "wake-up call," like the industry says? Not at all. Heli-USA’s president, Nigel Turner, has made clear that he rejects the NSTB findings. It doesn’t appear that he intends to change a thing about how his company maintains his helicopters. The fact of the matter is that he hasn’t learned any lesson at all, and the NTSB is powerless to bring him or his company into line.
It’s Still Profits Over Safety. It gets worse. Turner’s company operates only A-Star helicopters. A pilot himself, Turner says A-Stars have a problem. He says that the design of the helicopter’s hydraulic system causes the helicopters to crash. Turner says he has known about the problem for years, but the manufacturer refuses to fix it. Does that mean Turner is going to switch to a helicopter he considers safer? Nope. Turner makes no bones about it: the profit motive trumps safety. According to the Star-Bulletin:
Turner said that despite the problems with the A-Star, it will remain the helicopter of choice for his company because it’s the only chopper with forward-facing seats that can fit enough passengers to make a tour profitable.
Tourists Beware. Turner’s concerns about the safety of his helicopters appear nowhere on Heli-USA’s website. Instead, there’s a page touting Heli-USA’s "excellent safety record." (How can a company that has, in the past four years, killed 7 and injured 6 others consider its safety record to be "excellent"?)
Visitors to Hawaii deserve to know what the industry leaders know. Perhaps Heli-USA could at least put up a sign at its counters: "The owner feels the helicopter you are about to climb into has a dangerous design defect." Or maybe: "We don’t require our mechanics to follow the manuals."
Oh, wait a minute, that might not be good for profits.