Air Tour Crashes Put Safety Under a Cloud

SOMETIMES the best way to see what's on the ground is from the air, which prompts thousands of travelers to take sightseeing flights over some of Earth's beloved landscapes.

But two recent fatal crashes in Hawaii, both involving helicopters and both on Kauai, again raise the question of how safe these bird's-eye views might be.

On March 8, a Heli-USA Airways sightseeing helicopter crashed at Princeville Airport, killing the pilot and three passengers and seriously injuring three other passengers. Three days later, one person was killed and three others were seriously injured when a sightseeing helicopter operated by Smoky Mountain Helicopters Inc. went down in Haena.

Including this month's accidents, 35 people have died in Hawaiian helicopter sightseeing flights since 1995, which was the first full year for new Federal Aviation Administration rules governing Hawaiian air tour operators.

Steve Bassett, president of the Laurel, Md.-based U.S. Air Tours Assn., an air tour industry group, defends "flightseeing" as "an extremely safe industry."

"When you end up in a situation like [two fatal accidents within days of each other], the entire industry gets tarred and feathered," he said.

Still, tourists continue to flock to these air tours, according to the U.S. Air Tours Assn. Two million tourists climbed on board such flights in the U.S. in 2004, from New York to Hawaii. Most sightseeing-flight accidents occurred in some of the more rugged and beautiful terrain in the country.

In the last 10 years, there have been 20 helicopter sightseeing tour accidents in Hawaii, 10 in Arizona, eight in Alaska and one in New York.

Nationally, accident rates are about a quarter that of flights on general aviation planes (private planes operated usually by nonprofessional pilots) but 10 times greater than that of a commercial airline.

Most air tour operators fly under rules for "nonscheduled air carriers," which mandate more rigorous training, pilot experience and maintenance standards than general aviation but less rigorous than those for commercial air carriers.

In 2006, these nonscheduled air carriers had 54 accidents (17 were helicopter accidents and, of those, six were sightseeing flights), according to data from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Reducing the number of accidents is a priority for government and the aviation industry.

In February, the FAA issued new rules that require sightseeing helicopters to be equipped with flotation devices as well as personal flotation devices for any flights that are not within gliding distance of shore. In Hawaii, that means any inter-island flight but not those that take off and land on the same island. Operators have 18 months to comply with the new rule.

Still, the NTSB thinks the FAA should be doing more. In its final report issued last month on a 2004 fatal helicopter crash in Hawaii, the NTSB charged the FAA with "not providing direct surveillance and enforcement" of the special rules for operating air tours in Hawaii.

Those rules require flying above 1,500 feet and the preflight completion of a "performance plan" that takes into account such factors as weight of the passengers, air temperature and altitude of the planned flight.

"Pilots continue to violate [the special rules] ... either intentionally or unintentionally, thus placing themselves and their passengers at unnecessary risk for accidents, particularly in marginal weather conditions," the report said.

Travelers who want the thrill of a helicopter ride can do several things to reduce the risk.

The NTSB maintains an online database () with accident information searchable by state and type of aircraft, but not by operator. (A chart listing accidents by tour operator can be found at .)

To be safe, Bassett says travelers should choose a commercial air tour operator that is advertised as a "Part 135" carrier, the FAA's designation for carriers subject to higher standards than general aviation operators.

Travelers also should pay attention to the pilot's safety instructions and ask how to get out of the helicopter in case of an accident, especially if flying over water.

Ask questions if there is any uncertainty, especially if the pilot fails to provide pre-takeoff instructions, because safety, as travelers know, should never be left up in the air.


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