NTSB preliminary reports do not draw conclusions as the cause of a crash.  But the NTSB’s preliminary report of the Turbine Otter crash that killed 9 near Ketchikan on June 25 suggests a weather-related “CFIT” crash, exactly as described here.

First, the report indicates that the flight was conducted under Visual Flight Rules.  That means that that pilot was supposed to stay out of the clouds and avoid the terrain by looking out the window rather than by relying on instruments.Chelton disply

Second, the report indicates that the closest reported weather was “marginal” for flying under visual flight rules.    (“The closest weather reporting facility is Ketchikan Airport (KTN), Ketchikan, AK, about 24 miles southwest of the accident site. .  .  few clouds 800 feet, broken clouds 1,200 feet, overcast clouds 2,700 feet. . .”) 

Third, and most significantly, a helicopter pilot searching for the aircraft minutes after the crash was unable to get to the crash site because the terrain was obscured by clouds and fog.  

The NTSB noted that the Otter was equipped with a moving map display that is designed to depict the aircraft’s position with respect to hazardous terrain.  When first introduced, such displays were seen as a boon to safety, making it easier for pilots to avoid terrain that they might not otherwise be able to see.  But some argue that such technology doesn’t increase safety at all, because pilots use the technology to fly closer to the edge than they otherwise would.  The phenomenon coming into play is called “risk homeostasis.” And in fact, the NTSB has previously found that aircraft equipped with moving maps and the other technology comprising modern "glass cockpits" have a higher rate of fatal accidents than those that aren’t.

We don’t know much yet about the plane crash in Alaska that killed the pilot and 8 tourists from the MS Westerdam.  But the crash looks eerily similar to the Alaskan crash that killed Senator Ted Stevens and three others in 2010.

Like the plane that was involved in the Westerdam crash, the plane that crashed with Stevens Otter Senator Stevens Crashaboard was a de Havilland Otter retrofitted with floats and a turboprop engine. Both tour pilots encountered adverse weather that is common in Alaska:  Low Ceilings. Fog. Gusty winds.  

In the Steven’s crash, instead of turning around when he encountered the low clouds, the pilot pressed on.  Unable to see where he was going, he inadvertently flew into the side of the mountain. (The local papers were calling the pilot a "hero" because not everyone aboard was killed. I had to disagree.)

In last week’s crash at Ella Lake, the weather conditions were similar.  It looks as though the pilot,Promech Air Otter employed by tour operator Promech Air, inadvertently flew into the clouds and struck the side of a cliff.  

This sort of accident is not uncommon, particularly in Alaska and Hawaii.  The type of accident is called "controlled flight into terrain."  It is almost always due to pilot error. 

Blue Hawaiian helicopters was probably the last tour operator that flew a perfectly good aircraft into the side of a mountain due to low clouds.  Compare the photo of the weather conditions that contributed to the Blue Hawaiian crash (left) with the photo of the weather conditions that the Promech Air pilot tried to fly through.  Note how, in both photos, the clouds obscure the mountain tops.

Otter Crash near Ella Lake Alaska weather



No, he didn’t buy next to the airport. But for this property owner, he might as well have.

I thought I’d write to you, what do I have to lose at this point?

These tour helicopters "buzz" my property 7 days a week. I’m literally losing it. Highest count so far, 42 flights in a 6 hour period.

I’ve contacted the FAA, DOH, DOT, EPA, my local representative, the mayor, the Governor’s office, and the individual tour companies via e-mail. NOTHING has been done.

I live 12 miles from the airport and 30 miles from the volcano, the helicopters still fly in a half mile corridor creating a nuisance that to me is unacceptable. EVERYONE in my subdivision is irritated by it but NO government agency is willing to address the issue, the tour companies hide behind FAA rules that only address safety but not noise.

I don’t want to go on and on about this, I’m just hoping you’ve handled cases like this before and I can get some help.

I feel like I’ve lost the enjoyment of my property, my peace of mind, I’ve lost sleep and my anxiety attacks have come back after 2 years of being relatively free of it.

I realize that you primarily represent people who have been involved in crashes however it just boggles my mind that these companies are allowed to operate with little or no impunity and can conduct business in such a way to cause this kind of annoyance."

(Name withheld)

Unfortunately, it’s an uphill battle, as far as I’m concerned.  Some years ago, a property owner complained that a tour operator was not only driving him crazy with the noise, but was flying dangerously low over his property.  He reported the problem to the local Flight Standards District Office, which did essentially nothing.  The owner escalated the complaint to a mainland FSDO.  The mainland FAA inspectors came out a few times to watch from a hillside.  Funny thing – every time they came out, the overflights stopped.  

Seems that the local FSDO was tipping the operator off. 

Shortly after that, a Big Island Air tour came through, flying too close to the terrain. 10 people were killed when the aircraft crashed onto the northeast slope of Mauna Loa. 

We sued the FAA for failing to enforce the minimum altitude requirements.  Unfortunately, the FAA asserted its various immunities to block the suit. 

Let’s face it.  The tour operations are big business.  And the FAA seems more inclined to promote that business than to regulate it. 

I’m not exactly sure what it will take before there’s some sanity brought to the industry. 

Eurocopter’s AStar is the most popular tour helicopter in the United States. But according to some tour operators, the helicopter is dangerous and defective. They use it anyway because it is the most profitable.

No, I’m not making this up.

Problems with the AStar 350?

One of Las Vegas’ largest tour operators, Heli-USA, is run by Nigel Turner.  Turner is himself a pilot. He operates the largest AStar fleet in the Western United States. And he feels that the design of the AStar’s hydraulic sytem causes it to crash. Turner complains that the manufacturer refuses to fix the problems. But, like other tour operators he sticks with the AStar for one simple reason: money. According to a 2008 article in the Star Bulletin:

Turner said that despite the problems with the AStar, it will remaiAStar's Hydraulic Actuatorsn 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.

So what exactly do hydraulics and actuators do?

The actuators move the helicopter’s rotor blades, allowing the pilot to control the flight of the aircraft. The AS350’s hydraulics — similar to a power steering system in a car — help move the helicopter’s actuators. If the hydraulic system fails, the pilot may find it hard to move the actuators and thus the helicopter can be difficult to control.
While a problem with the hydraulic system can make the helicopter difficult to control, a disconnected or broken actuator will make the helicopter impossible to control. That’s what happened in 2007, when an AS350 just like the one involved in this accident crashed in Hawaii, killing four tourists. Days after that accident, Eurocopter issued a Special Airworthiness Bulletin (see below) prompted by two previous fatal accidents, warning of the consequences of loose servo control rod end fittings.

The Sundance Helicpter’s control system

NTSB board member Dr. Mark Rosekind says that the Sundance helicopter climbed and turned erratically just before impact.  That’s consistent with an actuator problem. And, just hours before the crash, one of the Sundance helicopter’s main rotor actuators was replaced.  Was the actuator defective? Was it installed incorrectly?

The NTSB has now recovered that actuator from the wreckage site. That’s where the investigation will focus.

But given what industry leaders have to say about problems with the AStar’s control system, one has to wonder whether by continuing to use the helicopter the tour industry is simply placing profits ahead of public safety.

AS350BService Bulletin

The NTSB blamed the pilot for the last Blue Hawaiian helicopter crash into the side of a mountain. The NTSB concluded that while flying near bad weather, the pilot inadvertently entered clouds, became disoriented, and lost control of the helicopter. According to the NTSB, the probable cause of the accident was:

The pilot’s inadequate decision by which he continued visual flight rules flight into instrument meteorological conditions. Also causal was his failure to maintain terrain clearance resulting in a collision with mountainous terrain. A contributing factor was the low ceiling.

One need only look at the low clouds in the photo taken shortly after TBy Joey Salamon/Molokai Dispatchhursday’s Blue Hawaiian crash on Molokai to wonder if weather and pilot decision-making played a similar role in this latest crash. 

Hawaii’s micro-weather makes helicopter tours dangerous. We’ve written about it before here, and hereSpoken about it too.  Yet, year after year, tour operators opt to collect the fares and fly when weather conditions dictate that they really should stay on the ground.

Did the pilot involved in Thursday’s crash try to squeeze his Eurocopter between the weather and the terrain and lose control?  Time will tell whether this accident should be added to the list of crashes caused by "improper VFR."  But without significant changes in the industry, Hawaiian tourists will continue to lose their lives in completely avoidable weather-related helicopter accidents. 

Operators have begun using LSAs — particularly "trikes" — to give air tours over the Hawaiian islands.  LSAs fly low and slow, just like helicopters, and are much cheaper to run.  But they have a terrible safety record.  And it’s illegal to use LSAs for commercial tours.

If it is illegal to use LSAs for commercial tours, how do LSA operators get away with it?  As I wrote here, they simply say that they are taking the passenger for an introductory "flight lesson," rather than a tour. 

The FAA now recognizes that operators are taking advantage of the regulatory loophole. According to one FAA official, "It appears some operators are trying to get around the air tour provision by offering flights under the guise of introductory flying instructions."

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports that  the FAA’s plan for dealing with the problem is to  step up surveillance:

the plan will call for more unannounced visits, interviews with pilots and record examinations of aircraft operators. Officials also held a meeting with weight-shift control operators to encourage more voluntary compliance.

The FAA says no new regulations are needed, since the existing rules are clear.  Yes, the rules are clear.  That’s the problem.  It’s clear that it’s legal to take a paying passenger for an introductory flight lesson.  And so that’s exactly what the tour companies operating LSAs will continue to do.

The Hawaiian air tour industry has a horrible safety record. And now it has claimed yet another life – that of a 53 year-old Californian who had traveled with his wife to the islands to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

I’ve written before about the dangers of Hawaiian helicopter tours. But this tourist’s death was not the result of a helicopter crash.  Rather, it was the result of the crash of a “Light-sport Aircraft” or LSA.  And, in fact, this was the third fatal LSA crash in Hawaii since last April.  Altogether, 6 people have died.Quik 912S

So what’s an LSA? It’s an aircraft that, among other things, weighs less than 1320 pounds and flies no faster than 140 miles per hour. LSA’s come in different shapes and sizes.  The model involved in the most recent crash, the Quik 912s, is pictured to the right.

LSA’s are cheap to buy and to operate. They are much, much less expensive than helicopters.  And many think they are just as good as helicopters, if not better, for “low and slow” sightseeing. 

There’s one catch. It’s illegal to use an LSA for commercial air tours. LSAs are not engineered and tested to the same standards as conventional aircraft. If a hobbyist wants to fly an LSA, that’s one thing. But the FAA won’t allow a pilot to use an LSA to give a member of the public an aerial tour for hire. LSA’s just aren’t safe enough.

Then how do the Hawaiian operators get away with doing just that?  The loophole: While a pilot can’t use an LSA to give tours for hire, he can give flight lessons.  So the pilot need only call this ride the tourist’s first "flight lesson,” and he’s legal.

This week, aviation accident attorneys from across the country met on Maui to discuss current topics in aviation law. This was part of the American Association of Justice’s Winter Convention. I was honored to have been asked to speak. My talk was on Hawaii helicopter crash litigation — a topic with which we are — unfortunately — perhaps too familiar.

I covered the profits, accident statistics, the poor safety record, lack of insurance, the popular equipment (including the Eurocopter AStar); and the FAA’s unfortunate lack of heli-tour industry oversight. Powerpoint available here.

As it turns out, my presentation was a bit controversial. The tour industry was a sponsor of the convention. And I ripped into it. On the flight back to San Francisco, someone asked me whether that made me uncomfortable, given that AAJ actually promoted the tours. In fact, the blogosphere was chiming in about it before I even spoke. Carter Wood, blogging on PointofLaw.com, questions the appropriateness of my topic:

That’s the way you pay back Hawaii’s hospitality? ‘Fly like a tropical bird, and then sue!’

First, the risks are, for the most part, unknown. Unknown to people travelling to Hawaii, and unknown even to the AAJ, a group which is, generally speaking, keenly aware of industries that place profits over consumer safety. Thus, the title, "Under the Radar."

Second, I want to get the word out. It’s too important. Too many people’s lives have been torn apart by this industry. I really don’t care what “sponsors” I offend.

In 1994, the FAA — hoping to reduce the number of helicopter tour crashes in Hawaii — promulgated a controversial rule that set minimum altitudes for Hawaiian sight seeing flights.

According to an article appearing this spring in Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, after the rule went into effect the overall number of helicopter crashes in Hawaii decreased, but the number of crashes resulting from improper VFR flight into instrument conditions increased.  That means fewer overall crashes (especially ocean ditchings), but  more crashes into mountainsides hidden in the clouds. The number of fatal crashes remained the same.

Although its data and methodology may be questionable, the recent report concludes:

the FAA should reconsider the Rule’s clause that established a minimum flying altitude of 1,500 feet, as we know higher altitudes are associated with more cloud cover. 

This conclusion delighted the helicopter industry which opposed the new minimum altitude requirement.  And a possible increase in weather-related accidents was one of the FAA’s concerns from the outset.  Requiring helicopters to maintain more clearance from terrain features, and more altitude to deal with engine failure, makes it harder for them to remain clear of the clouds.  But the report fails to consider the "deviations" the FAA has issued to air tour operators that allow them to fly lower than the established minimums.  Depending on the number of deviations that the FAA issued, it may be unfair to blame the rule for the increased number of mountainside collisions.

It’s a modern day Scylla and Charybdis. (OK, you’ll have to indulge me, my favorite mythical allusion because it’s more accurate than saying "catch-22” or "caught between a rock and a hard place.") Is the danger posed by the close proximity to the terrain more daunting than the unpredictable cloud cover? When it spoke in 1994 the FAA said, “No — higher altitude is safer".

The easy answer: the applicant is the Pilot in Command and is fully responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft, not the FAA check pilot. But what about when the check pilot attempts to simulate an engine failure by chopping the throttle? At that point, hasn’t the check pilot assumed control of the aircraft?

Well, that’s what happened recently when another AS350 helicopter accident occurred during a check ride in Maui. The applicant, a commercially certificated air tour pilot working for Sunshine Helicopters, made a forced landing after the helicopter experienced a total loss of engine power. The helicopter was destroyed and both the pilot and the FAA check pilot suffered serious injuries.

The FAA defends the check pilot, explaining that it is routine to simulate the loss of engine power during a check ride. The air tour operator, Sunshine Helicopters, claims that while a simulated loss of engine power may be routine, the check pilot’s actions resulted in an actual engine failure over terrain unsuitable for an emergency landing.  Causing an actual engine failure is anything but routine.

The F.A.A. regulations require that, to pass a check ride, an applicant must demonstrate that he is the “obvious master of the aircraft.”  It follows that the applicant is presumed to be the pilot in command and responsible for the safe outcome of the flight. But if the applicant pilot can prove that the check pilot improperly interfered with his ability to control the aircraft, then he may successfully overcome that presumption and hold the FAA check pilot responsible.