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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 23, 2003

Helicopter pilot killed in crash on Kaho'olawe

By Allison Schaefers and Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writers

A civilian pilot was killed yesterday when his helicopter crashed and burned on Kaho'olawe during the Navy's ordnance cleanup of the island once used by the military for bombing practice.

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

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

Witnesses said the UH-1 Bell helicopter fell from 2,000 feet, landing upside down and bursting into flame as soon as it hit the ground, according to Coleman.

Until relatives could be notified, officials were withholding the identity of the pilot, who was a longtime employee of the U.S. Navy subcontractor Pacific Helicopter Tours Inc.

Coleman said the pilot was experienced and well respected.

The fatality is the first one associated with the Department of Defense's ordnance clearance project, said Lt. Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a spokeswoman for Navy Region Hawai'i.

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.

Operations resume Tuesday

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.

It is the first fatality associated with that project, although it's the second chopper accident there 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 the National Transportation Safety Board report on the incident, 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.

Ordnance cleanup

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

Making Kaho'olawe safe

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 projects, 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."

The company, known for work in difficult salvage operations, has been involved with the cleanup since the contract began in 1998 and during the two-year pilot project preceding it. Also, McGregor said, Pacific Helicopters helped with the eradication of goats that were destroying new plantings.

"It's very tragic, so close to the end of the cleanup period, that this happened," McGregor said.