by Mark Huber
Rapidly changing localized weather and pilot fatigue are two possible contributors to the fatal crash of an air tour helicopter in Hawaii on December 26th that killed the pilot and his six passengers.
In its preliminary accident report issued this week, the National Transportation Safety Board, noted discordant weather reports in the area of the crash site, 24 miles northwest of Lihue that suggest a challenging and rapidly changing weather situation. A witness 1.5 to 1.75 miles away from the scene in the Koke’e State Park reported hearing the accident helicopter shortly before the crash at 4:57 p.m. local time and weather conditions of 20 feet forward visibility in rain and fog. The closest official weather reporting station in the area, nine miles southwest at Kauai’s Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility (PABK), at 4:56 p.m. local time reported wind from 310 degrees at 12 knots, gusting to 15 knots; 10 statute miles visibility; few clouds at 1,200 ft, broken clouds at 3,400 ft and 4,700 ft, overcast clouds at 6,000 ft; temperature 70 degrees F; and dew point 57 degrees. However, by 5:18 p.m. conditions had deteriorated to wind from 350 degrees at 10 knots; 2.5 statute miles’ visibility in rain and mist, overcast clouds at 3,000 ft; temperature 73 degrees; and dew point 72 degrees.
The NTSB also reported that the pilot, identified in news reports as Paul Matero, 69, was flying his eighth 50-minute aerial tour of the day. The total length of his time on duty on the day of the accident flight is not specified. Matero held a commercial rotorcraft rating issued in 2011 and a second-class FAA physical with limitations for corrective lenses. He was scheduled to retire in early 2020. Another helicopter in the area reported hearing Matero give a position report at 4:45 p.m. at reporting point “Upper Mic,” which would have suggested that the accident helicopter was leaving Waimea Canyon then transitioning via the Koke’e State Park to the Na Pali coastline.
The NTSB reports the accident helicopter, a 1998 Airbus AS350 B2, N985SA, was destroyed by impact forces and a postcrash fire when it hit terrain on a north facing slope at an elevation of 3,003 ft msl and came to rest at an elevation of about 2,900 ft msl. The flight originated at the Lihue Airport (PHLI) at 4:31 p.m. The helicopter was registered to SAF LTD and operated by Safari Aviation Inc., doing business as Safari Helicopters, as a Part 135 on-demand commercial air tour VFR flight. Company flight following procedures were in effect. Safari reported the helicopter missing at 5:31 p.m. local time, 10 minutes after its scheduled arrival time back at Lihue. An extensive aerial search located the wreckage at 9:32 a.m. the following morning.