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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted at 12:58 p.m., Friday, May 23, 2003

Pilot in helicopter crash identified

By Allison Schaefers and Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writers

The civilian pilot killed yesterday when his helicopter crashed on Kaho'olawe was identified today as Gary Freeman, 55, of Texas, the Navy said.

Freeman died when his UH-1H Bell helicopter, also known as a Bell 205, crashed and burned during the Navy's ordnance cleanup of the island once used by the military for bombing practice.

Freeman was "a skilled, veteran pilot" and Vietnam War veteran, said Lt. Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for Navy Region Hawai'i.

He had been flying for Pacific Helicopter Tours Inc., a Navy subcontractor working on the cleanup, for four years and worked the entire time on the Kaho'olawe project, Campbell said.

Freeman had flown helicopters for more than 35 years and had more than 10,000 flight hours.

FAA investigators who were immediately sent to the scene determined that the accident was caused when a long-line cable struck the tail rotor. Long-line cables are often used by helicopters to pick up and transfer cargo and equipment.

The crash happened near Ahupu Bay at 11:50 a.m., shortly after the pilot dropped off a load, said FAA spokeswoman Tweet Coleman.

Witnesses said the helicopter fell from 2,000 feet, landing upside down and bursting into flame as soon as it hit the ground, according to Coleman.

Coleman said the pilot was experienced and well respected.

The National Transportation Safety Board did not investigate the crash site but plans to inspect the wreckage next week.

Coleman said all parties involved in the cleanup project send their condolences to the family of the pilot.

"Our thoughts are also with all the workers on the clearance project as they deal with this tragic loss," Coleman said.

Demolition operations scheduled for today on Kaho'olawe have been canceled. The contractor will resume operations Tuesday, she said.

Pacific Helicopter has a long, previously unblemished safety record working with the cleanup of ordnance on Kaho'olawe, a project the Navy has coordinated for the past decade.

The fatality is the first one associated with the Department of Defense's ordnance clearance project, Campbell said.

But it's the second chopper accident on the island in two years.

On Oct. 9, 2001, a Hughes 369D helicopter operated by Windward Aviation Inc. landed on Kaho'olawe with three passengers.

According to an NTSB report, the two had signaled that they were clear and the pilot lifted off, unaware that the third passenger had returned to the helicopter to retrieve a forgotten item.

That passenger, who was reaching inside when the craft took off, fell to the ground and was "seriously injured," according to the report.

Campbell said neither accident was related to the primary risk associated with the project: unexploded ordnance.

"This still remains a project that, with respect to ordnance clearance, has an impeccable safety record," Campbell said.

Pacific Helicopter and Windward Aviation are the two subcontractors hired by Parson-UXB Joint Venture, the general contractor for the cleanup of the island, once used as a target in military bombing exercises.

The island is a reserve, established 10 years ago by federal law. Under the law, the Navy on Nov. 11 will turn over control of access to the island to a state panel — the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission. Ultimately Kaho'olawe will be controlled by a native Hawaiian government, but the state is holding the island in trust until that government is formed.

The law also gave the Navy 10 years to clean up the unexploded ordnance; about $380 million in federal money has been spent on the work to date. The aim is to make the island safe for visiting groups to come ashore for various activities, including traditional Hawaiian rites and practices and replanting the denuded terrain.

Under the Navy's supervision such visits have been led by the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana, the group that has served as the court-designated civilian steward of the island.

Spokesmen for Parson-UXB and Pacific Helicopter declined comment yesterday.

But Davianna McGregor, one of the 'Ohana leaders coordinating the visits, described Pacific Helicopter as "highly skilled, very safe, very experienced."