Hawaii Helicopter Crashes – Is It Safe To Fly?

Although enjoyable, helicopters have a reputation for being dangerous. This is especially true in Hawaii, where way too many people lost their lives in fatal crashes over the years.

Several reasons contribute to Hawaii helicopter crashes—but why so many?

For one, Hawaii uses more helicopters for tours than other states. Other variables that can cause crashes are inexperienced pilots, faulty parts, low maintenance, overloading, bad weather, or geography.

Hawaii flight accidents may happen from one of these causes or a combination of mishaps. Continue reading this article to learn about each reason in detail.

Worst Helicopter Crashes in Hawaii

 

Here’s a summary of some recent and fatal Hawaii tour helicopter crashes:

  • July 2000, in Maui, resulting in 7 fatal injuries.
  • June 2003, in Volcano town, resulting in 4 fatal injuries.
  • July 2003, in Kauai, resulting in 5 fatal injuries.
  • November 2011, in Pukoo, resulting in 5 fatal injuries.
  • December 2019, in Kauai, resulting in 7 fatal injuries.
  • April 2019, in Kailua, resulting in 3 fatal injuries.

Why Are There So Many Hawaii Helicopter Crashes?

You can’t pinpoint one reason behind the relatively large number of Hawaii helicopter accidents compared to other states. However, bad weather tops the list of reasons that cause Hawaii helicopters to crash.

Generally, helicopters have a higher crash rate compared to airplanes. Primarily, this has to do with their design. You see, choppers have movable blades and respond to tiny movements, making it difficult to hover more than fixed-wing airplanes.

Aside from tours, these types of aircraft are often used in risky situations, such as firefighting, medical transportation, media, and more. These routes can be more dangerous than controlled airplane routes.

Here’s a list of the common reasons behind Hawaii helicopter crashes:

Loss of Tail Rotor Control

Helicopters contain various movable parts, and tail rotators are one of them. For those who don’t know, tail rotors are the small vertical blades at the tail. Although small, they play a vital role in keeping the helicopter in the air.

When the main rotor spins, it applies a rotating force to the helicopter’s body. The tail rotor’s job is to counter that rotating force by propelling horizontally to keep the helicopter spinning in the main rotor’s direction.

Without the tail rotor thrust, the force produced by the main rotor will spin the helicopter’s body in the opposite direction—Newton’s third law, remember?

Loss of tail rotor control can happen when sudden wind forces hit the tail blades, affecting its spin. Another reason that can cause pilots to lose tail rotor control is a fracture in any blade component. The latter reason was the cause of a crash near Kalapana in March 2020.

Four out of ten helicopter tail blades had cracks near the base. As a result, one of the blades was liberated in midair, causing the pilot to lose control of the chopper.

Typically, when tail rotors are no longer functional, the helicopter makes a sudden rotation. If the pilot fails to correct the uncontrolled spin, it’ll cause the aircraft to undergo a steep turn, eventually crashing.

Loss of Main Rotor Control

Similar to tail rotors, a well-maintained helicopter’s main rotor is crucial for a safe flight.

Yet, the main rotors can experience a lot of damage. For instance, some helicopters fly at a lower height than airplanes, which can cause the large blades to hit many obstacles like trees and signal towers.

Any damage to the main wings will cause the helicopter to fall, which will most likely cause fatal accidents. Plus, these wings are constantly spinning, which can subject them to wear and tear, even without impact.

Sudden wind can also disturb the main rotor’s function, which was the case in the 2019 Kailua accident.

Although the wind speed was 9 mph, the tour helicopter suddenly bumped into a wind gust. As a result, the main rotor flapped excessively, hitting the cabin and eventually breaking the helicopter apart in midair.

Faulty Engine Components

It’s no surprise that helicopter engines require a ton of maintenance. After all, it’s the driving force that powers all helicopter components. With such a hefty task, the engines can deteriorate over time.

As a result, some motor components might need replacement. Still, the installed engine parts can deteriorate from excessive use or improper maintenance.

However, even with an engine failure, pilots can avoid crashing by putting the helicopter into autorotation mode. This mode uses airflow to rotate the main rotor even when the engines are off, resulting in a controlled landing.

Autorotation is usually the last resort in twin-engined helicopters, thanks to the spare motor. If one engine fails, no worries; the second is there to continue a safe flight!

However, flying a twin-engined helicopter on one motor is only achievable as long as the weight is kept under the required limit and the engines are in good shape.

That said, a faulty engine can still lead to fatal crashes. Unfortunately, that was the cause of a deadly crash in 2003. The tour helicopter had a faulty engine part, the compressor coupling adapter, which connects rotating shafts to transfer the rotatory motion.

When the compressor coupling fails to run, it’ll cause engine failure, eventually leading to loss of helicopter control and crashing.

Simple Maintenance Error

Every helicopter company has a maintenance routine for its aircraft, which varies depending on the model and flight hours. Some companies inspect choppers before and after each flight to do maintenance.

On average, the care can take up to 50 hours. After all, an accident that happens due to the lack of proper maintenance may shut down a company for a long time.

In an attempt to avoid that, most helicopters have advanced software to determine the maintenance frequency needed for each aircraft. The software monitors the chopper’s state, schedules repairs, and tracks and documents maintenance activities.

Even then, improper maintenance can occasionally happen, resulting in fatal accidents. One such incident was the 2018 Honolulu helicopter crash, which took place because of improper engine lubrication.

Human Errors and Lapses in Judgment

All the above reasons are mechanical causes that may lead to helicopter crashes. However, whether you believe it or not, technical issues that lead to aircraft accidents only happen on rare occasions.

It’s human error that’s behind most aviation accidents—around 60 to 80 percent, according to the FAA. Of course, the pilots themselves come high on that list due to violations, skill-based errors, and decision-making problems.

This is especially true in flying a helicopter since this type of aircraft requires a lot of hand-flying. Unlike airplanes, where pilots usually leave the aircraft to fly themselves midair.

Sure, pilots undergo extensive training to avoid making mistakes. Yet, they can’t really experience every unexpected situation during practice. Instead, there’s a bit of judgment that needs to go into the mix.

Take the unfortunate 2019 Kauai crash as an example. Camera footage from another helicopter showed the weather that day was cloudy, but the pilot chose to fly into it anyway.

The investigation reported that the pilot wasn’t intoxicated. There wasn’t any mechanical damage to the helicopter, as well. So, some people deduce that the pilot’s lack of judgment is to blame.

Plus, the amount of manual work required to fly helicopters can overload pilots and fatigue them. With eight 50-minute long flights on the schedule, it’s not hard to see that the pilot could lose some focus!

Sadly, this type of error isn’t an isolated issue. Out of the worst sightseeing helicopter accidents, pilots deciding to hover under bad weather conditions is a common factor.

Organizational Errors

Pilots aren’t the only ones to blame for Hawaii helicopter accidents. Negligence from other associations plays a role, as well.

Here are some primary examples of negligence from flight organizations:

 

Low Number of Weather Cameras

The lack of weather cameras and other weather-detecting types of equipment is still an issue in Hawaii.

While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has several cameras installed around the island, many areas still lack camera coverage.

For example, only two weather cameras are in Kauai, and neither cameras are present in the northwest part where the unfortunate 2019 accident took place.

 

Weather Training Problems

Not all tour pilots have safety experience when dealing with bad weather conditions or are certified to fly under instrument meteorological conditions.

Instrument meteorological conditions (IMCs) require a pilot to fly using weather instruments as cues for bad climate rather than visual perception.

In most cases, transitioning into IMC reduces the chances of fatal accidents rather than relying on visual flight rules only. That makes sense since these instruments can give more accurate feedback about the weather, especially when climate change is unexpected.

So, it’s possible that a lack of customized programs for tour pilots has an impact on the Hawaii helicopter crashing rate. For instance, the 2019 Kailua neighborhood crash is an example of why tour pilots should undergo additional weather-cueing training programs.

The pilot was flying faster than normal when the chopper suddenly ran into a sudden storm and lost control of the helicopter. If the pilot had better training to watch for signs of bad weather, the situation might have been avoided.

Difficult Investigations for Incidents

Most helicopters don’t contain a black box, which is a recording device that aids in accident investigations.

Generally, only large aircraft are legally required to install black boxes. On the other hand, small choppers that carry a few passengers, like tour helicopters, don’t have the recording device.

Why most choppers lack black boxes has to do with its expensive installation cost and maintenance. Plus, some helicopters are small, so any additional weight installed must be calculated.

However, this also means that there’s a lack of flight data, making investigating and preventing similar helicopter incidents from happening in the future quite difficult.

Challenging Climate and Topography

Even with pilots trained to fly in numerous weather conditions, Hawaii can be one climate roller coaster. Believe it or not, you can experience 10 out of 14 world climate zones on this island!

Humid tropical climates, hot desert climates, wet and dry summer climate, and even ice climates are all found in Hawaii. So, it’s no surprise that it can be challenging for pilots to tour in the air during all these weather changes.

Sometimes a change in weather can happen within minutes, which can be difficult even for experienced pilots to escape.

Plus, Hawaii contains numerous landscapes like cliffs and forests. Sure, it’s pleasant to look at. However, this beautiful scenery can be an obstacle when a pilot tries to find a spot to land during a storm or in case of faulty equipment.

Even when the surrounding environment is calm, there are still some risks. For one, helicopters can unintentionally bump into something if they choose to fly at lower levels, causing the chopper to crash.

Busy Helicopter Schedules

Helicopter touring is a must-to-do activity whenever people visit Hawaii, and all for good reasons. You view the entire island and well-known landmarks within an hour or so.

Additionally, you can see places you can’t access through a car ride. Not to mention, flying can be enjoyable for many people.

With so many helicopter tours in Hawaii , it’s only natural that the accident rate would be higher than in other states that don’t use helicopters as much. Plus, so many helicopters in the air increase the chances of air collisions.

Air collision accidents hadn’t happened with any tour helicopters in Hawaii. However, in 2016, two marine choppers crashed into each other during training, resulting in an explosion.

The Takeaway

Technical problems, human errors, and environmental factors are three primary reasons behind Hawaii helicopter crashes.

Technical problems can happen from different faulty parts, such as the main rotor, tail rotor, and engine components. Meanwhile, bad decision-making, lack of skills, or violations are among the main human errors that lead to helicopter crashes.

Besides pilot errors, the absence of enough weather-predicting devices in Hawaii contributes to the high accident rate.

Combine all these reasons with Hawaii’s diverse climate and topography, and it explains why the state witnesses this many helicopter crashes.

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