By Dan Nakaso and Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writers
The pilot in yesterday’s crash may have had roughly this view when he heard a loud bang and lost control. He managed to put his spinning aircraft down in the only large clearing in sight, at YMCA Camp Naue. The wreckage is directly below the rightmost red fire vehicle visible in the clearing.
“I looked out the window and it fell straight down, spinning slightly but with no control, and crashed … People from everywhere rushed to help,” resident Doug Manning said.
Randy and Deborah Briskin, of Westport, Conn., said they almost were on the Inter-Island Helicopters flight that crashed, but instead ended up flying on an earlier air tour with another company.
Wreckage of the Inter-Island Helicopters Hughes 500 lies under a false kamani tree that the aircraft's rotors clipped during its out-of-control plunge to the ground yesterday in Ha'ena, on Kaua'i's North Shore.
"It made a sound like a gunshot, but a deeper sound. It wavered back and forth, and then he got it under control and then it started spinning."
HA'ENA, Kaua'i — Witnesses saw a crippled tour helicopter spinning — some said out of control — just before it crashed yesterday afternoon on Kaua'i's North Shore, killing one of its four passengers and leaving three people in critical condition.
It was the second fatal crash of a Kaua'i tour helicopter in 70 hours and occurred just five miles from the scene of Thursday's crash of a Heli USA Airways helicopter, which killed the pilot and three of his passengers.
The pilot in yesterday's crash, Donald Torres, 30, was flying with four passengers when he heard a loud bang about 1 p.m. and lost control of the Hughes 500, operated by Inter-Island Helicopters.
Torres had flown for Heli USA, the company involved in Thursday's crash, just before joining Inter-Island Helicopters.
After crashing yesterday in a field at the YMCA's Camp Naue in Ha'ena, Torres was taken to Wilcox Memorial Hospital.
Of the four injured in the crash, one was undergoing surgery last night at Wilcox and was listed in critical condition, hospital officials said. Two others had been taken to The Queen's Medical Center on O'ahu in critical condition.
Mary Hunter Leach of Kilauea was at a backyard memorial service yesterday at Ha'ena Beach when she saw the blue and gray Hughes 500 struggling in the sky.
Leach said she instantly thought, "'Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God' because this just happened last week.
"It was really very emotional," she said.
TOO EARLY TO TELL
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said last night that it is too early to determine whether the entire Kaua'i tour helicopter fleet should be grounded because of the two crashes.
"The FAA's top priority is always safety and we take every action extremely seriously," Gregor said. "But we have two different operators here and two different models of helicopters involved and both investigations are in their early stages. So it would really be premature to try to draw any conclusions about these two events until we have more information at our disposal."
He said the FAA has shut down operators for specific violations, but he repeated that it would be "irresponsible" to discuss any potential action in the two Kaua'i crashes.
Torres was flying in the left-front pilot's seat with two passengers next to him and two in the back.
He was about midway through his scheduled 50- to 55-minute helicopter tour of Kaua'i when he heard a bang.
"It made a sound like a gunshot, but a deeper sound," said Maya Green of Ha'ena. "It wavered back and forth and then he got it under control and then it started spinning."
John Rodden of Princeville watched the helicopter spin and struggle.
Rodden turned his hand in a circle and said, "I saw this helicopter going down like this — the cab around the tail and the tail around the cab."
Torres somehow found the only vacant spot for miles — a field at the YMCA's Camp Naue in Ha'ena.
Otherwise, the area is filled with private homes and foliage from the beach to Kuhio Highway.
'IT WAS VERY SURREAL'
Dr. Robert Zelkovsky of Wailua Homestead was also at the backyard service for Nancy Hollander when someone pointed toward the helicopter about a mile away.
"It was spinning uncontrollably," Zelkovsky said. "You couldn't hear anything but it was going straight down in a slow spiral. It was slowly descending. I hoped it was a stunt pilot and they were filming something. It was very surreal. I've never seen anything like that."
Frank Broderick of Kilauea said, "It seemed like to me the tail rotor had gone out and he was going down like he was trying to keep some sort of autorotation thing going."
Pilots practice autorotation maneuvers as a way to land helicopters when the engine fails. The rotor blades help slow the helicopter's descent in a move similar to gliding in an airplane.
Doug Manning lives about 200 yards from the YMCA's Camp Naue and was on the telephone when he heard the sound of the struggling engine.
Manning looked outside his window and saw the Hughes 500 "drop straight out of the sky," he said. "It circled, it spun. He had absolutely no control whatsoever."
The helicopter crashed through a small white picket fence. Its main rotor blades clipped branches from an overhanging false kamani tree.
The aircraft ended up on its right side, said Manning, who went to the scene.
He said neighbors rushed to the area and emergency crews took the wounded out on stretchers and surf boards.
"It was luck" that he avoided hitting anyone on the ground, Manning said. The pilot "had absolutely no control, left, right, east, west."
INSPECTORS AT SCENE
FAA inspectors were at the crash site yesterday and an inspector from the National Transportation Safety Board was en route yesterday afternoon.
Helicopter tour pilots typically are not in touch with controllers when they are flying in uncontrolled airspace in good weather, Gregor said, and neither was Torres.
Torres has a commercial rotorcraft (helicopter) certificate and an instrument rating, which means he is licensed to fly in bad weather, Gregor said.
The helicopter that crashed was built by McDonnel Douglas Heli Co. in 1987 and was owned by Smoky Mountain Helicopters Inc., doing business as Inter-Island Helicopters, according to FAA records.
It had previously been used by the Ventura County Sheriff's Department in California, according to FAA records.
Inter-Island Helicopters has had two fatal accidents and one crash without an injury on Kaua'i since 1994:
On Christmas Day, 2005, Jonathan D'Attilio — the son of Inter-Island's owner, Ken D'Attilio — crashed into the De Mello Reservoir while helping the Kaua'i Fire Department put out a brush fire. Jonathan D'Attilio later died of his injuries.
On July 15, 2004, an Inter-Island pilot helping fight a fire had to perform an emergency landing at Lihu'e Airport after the main rotor blades came in contact with a tree. The helicopter rolled onto its side, but the pilot walked away.
Ten years earlier, on April 18, 1994, a woman died and three other passengers and the pilot were injured after crashing in Hanapepe Valley when their helicopter lost engine power.
On its Web site, Inter-Island says that most of its pilots are military trained and experienced in air rescues.
The company's tours start at Burns Field in Hanapepe on the West side of Kaua'i, according to Inter-Island's Web site, then fly to Waimea Canyon, Koke'e State Park, the Na Pali Coast, around Bali Hai peaks and Ke'e Beach, past Ha'ena, into Lumaha'i Valley, past Hanalei Bay, down Hanalei Valley and into Wai'ale'ale crater and Hanapepe Valley — before landing back at Port Allen Airport.
Inter-Island charges $189 for its 50- to 55-minute "Deluxe Island Tour."
Randy and Deborah Briskin, visitors from Westport, Conn., stopped along Kuhio Highway in Ha'ena yesterday to look at the wreckage of a flight they almost took.
"We were going to be on this exact same flight today," Deborah said, but they switched to another tour company.
The couple had planned a helicopter tour several days ago, but canceled after learning of Thursday's Heli USA crash.
"On the day of the first crash we had made our reservations," she said, "but after hearing of the crash I got scared."
Yesterday, they initially planned to take an Inter-Island flight that left Port Allen just after noon. They ended up taking a Jack Harter Helicopters flight earlier yesterday from Lihu'e Airport.
But they decided to fly on a helicopter only after doing extensive research and by calling helicopter firms, asking about such things as safety procedures and pilot experience.
"We asked all kinds of questions," Deborah Briskin said.
Advertiser Staff Writers Curtis Lum and Greg Wiles contributed to this report.