An Unsafe Industry

The investigation into the last helicopter crash is progressing with some twists and turns. While the investigators were originally cautious not to rule out any mechanical malfunction, the investigation is now centered on pilot error, some conflicting accounts of the accident, and some blame.

Except for having a surviving pilot trying to shed the blame, the situation is very similar to last year’s fatal crash. In that case, the pilot who was also 2 months-new to Kauai flew into severe weather and crashed in to a mountain. Neither pilot was certified for IFR (Instrument Flight Rules), which give the training and experience to handle low-visibility weather conditions. For some reason not yet reported on, neither pilot chose not to avoid the clouds or the rain, which is feasible with our localized weather. I suspect the pressure to complete full tours and not interrupt the “rotation” (sequence of tours) had something to do with it.

In researching the record of helicopter accidents, I found all the data readily available from the National Transportation Safety Bureau. I have put the information into the table below, but the summary for Kauai is that there was a fatal crash in clear weather into a mountainside in 2003, and another in bad weather with an inexperienced pilot in 1998.

Location Company Make &
Preliminary Preliminary 9/23/2005 Haena, Kauai Heli USA Aerospatiale AS 350BA N355NT Fatal (3)
Preliminary Preliminary 9/24/2004 Kalaheo, Kauai Bali Hai Bell 206B N16849 Fatal (5)
Preliminary Preliminary 7/23/2003 Waialeale, Kauai Jack Harter Bell 206B N37741 Fatal (5)
Preliminary Preliminary 6/15/2003 Volcano, Big Island Paradise McDonnell Douglas 369D N4493M Fatal (4)
Probable Cause Factual
Probable Cause
7/21/2000 Kahului, Maui Blue Hawaiian Aerospatiale AS 355F1 N510TG Fatal (7)
Probable Cause Factual
Probable Cause
6/25/1998 Mt. Waialeale, Kauai Ohana Eurocopter AS-350-BA N594BK Fatal (6)

Unfortunately, the factual and probable cause reports aren’t finalized until 1 to 3 years after the preliminary report. So we’ll have to wait for the final word. However, the undisputed fact is that an average of more than 4 people every year die in helicopter accidents on Kauai recently, a much worse figure than on any of the other islands. I don’t have the number of annual helicopter passengers, but knowing that the same tourists also drive rental cars and have less fatalities in traffic, I can assert that it is much safer to see Kauai by car.

Update: Added preliminary NTSB report for latest accident and company names to the table.

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1 Comment   »

  1. Mark says:

    On one hand, I know nothing about piloting except what I’ve heard from Eric and Daniel. Apparently it can be considerably more involving than driving, but maybe that’s because they don’t do some much of it.

    On the other hand, I wonder how many accidents attributed to pilot error are in fact a combination of limited usability combined with occassional mistakes. It’s probably inevitable, though unfortunate, that what gets shared in articles like the one you quote at the end of the first paragraph of this entry is basically gossip, the NTSB findings seeming quite dull by comparison, and aimed more at insurance adjusters than the rest of us.

    It’s surprising to hear that it’s safer to drive than fly. Is the trend similar if you compare driving-related injuries with biking-related injuries. I mean, are there enough tourists doing offroad biking that they get injured more easily than people just driving around? How does hiking compare with driving?

    Not that I’d like to do any siteseeing in my car, though.

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