Hawaii Crash Probe Looks at Landing Gear

Federal officials investigating a helicopter crash that killed four, including a Long Island man, are looking into why the aircraft's bulbous, yellow floats inflated.

The National Transportation Safety Board will try to determine whether the inflatable pontoons in the tour helicopter's landing gear deployed before the aircraft landed or on impact, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported.

Pilot Joe Sulak, one of four people killed in Thursday's crash, reported hydraulic failure moments before the accident.

John O'Donnell, 45, of East Rockaway, also was killed. His wife, Veronica, also 45, was critically injured.

Helicopter pilots routinely practice landing without hydraulic power - a maneuver called "run-on landing." They bring the helicopter to the ground while moving forward and then slide to a stop on the aircraft's metal skids, said aviation accident attorney Mike Danko.

But the presence of pop-out floats beneath the skids makes this type of landing all but impossible, said Danko, of San Mateo, Calif., who also flies helicopters.

"When you have a hydraulic failure, you're perfectly able to get to the ground," Danko said. "If you have the floats out, you're no longer able to skid."

Instead, the helicopter is likely to stop short and slam forward on its nose, he said.

A witness saw the Heli-USA chopper plunge nose-first into the grass near a Kauai airport runway, crushing the front of the cockpit, NTSB lead investigator Brian Rayner told the Star-Bulletin.

A preliminary report on the investigation probably will be released in two weeks, Rayner said.

Danko said it is "unlikely" that the pontoons deployed on impact. He said he had never heard of pop-out floats inflating on their own.

Last week's crash was the second involving Las Vegas-based Heli-USA since Sept. 23, 2005, when a chopper crashed into the ocean off Kauai and sank immediately, killing three.

The company last year installed inflatable floats on all its Kauai A-Star helicopters - though it was not required to do so. Without floats, passengers have no time to exit the aircraft before it sinks, Danko said.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration announced new safety standards for air tour companies, including mandatory floats for helicopters operating over water near rugged shoreline with no safe place to land.

The NTSB, in its report on the 2005 crash, last month recommended even stronger regulations requiring all tour helicopters to have floats.

Review NTSB findings on the 2005 and 2004 helicopter crashes in Hawaii as reported earlier on AirportBusiness.com:

  • Adverse Weather Lead to Tour Copter's 2005 Crash
  • Poor Visibility Confused Tour Copter Pilot in 2004 Crash

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