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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, September 26, 2004

Copter 'ran into mountain'

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

LIHU'E, Kaua'i — A U.S. Coast Guard search helicopter's crew spotted the burned wreckage of a tour helicopter yesterday afternoon after a two-day search that involved at least a dozen aircraft.

The burned remains of the Kaua'i tour helicopter are at the bottom of this steep ridge between Mount Kahili and Wai'ale'ale.

Photo courtesy Coast Guard

The Bell 206 JetRanger chopper from Bali Hai Helicopters with five people aboard smashed into a near-vertical cliff and burned Friday afternoon, with no apparent survivors.

Clouds and rain obscured the crash site, which was not discovered until 2 p.m. A Kaua'i Fire Department rescue team hovered near the site all afternoon before getting a brief opening in the weather and concluding that it was unlikely anyone survived.

"It appeared it basically ran right into the mountain and burned. It was burned beyond recognition," said fire rescue specialist Ehren Edwards, of Kalaheo.

A second Fire Department crew went up in the late afternoon aboard an Inter-Island Helicopters Hughes 500 helicopter to assess the site and determine how best to recoverthe bodies. Fire Department incident commander Mitchell Ikeda said a rescue crew would return to the site this morning to attempt the recovery.

The identities of the pilot and four passengers were not released. County information officer Cyndi Ozaki said the passengers included a couple from Germany and a 36-year-old Mainland man and a 30-year-old Mainland woman. Bali Hai Helicopters officials declined comment about the crash.

Kaua'i firefighters return after inspecting the wreckage of the tour helicopter. Yesterday's search included 11 helicopters.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

The tour helicopter left the Port Allen airfield a little after 4 p.m. Friday, and was last seen about 5 p.m. flying by the Koke'e State Park, which would have been about halfway through a normal tour. There were no further sightings and no radio transmissions from the aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration called the Coast Guard about 6:05 p.m. to report an overdue helicopter. The Coast Guard and local helicopter firms launched a late afternoon search effort, but found nothing. The missing aircraft was not equipped with an emergency radio beacon, which many aircraft are required to carry.

"They were operating under a waiver from the FAA" that allowed the Bali Hai helicopter to fly without a transponder, said Lt. Danny Shaw, Coast Guard senior rescue coordinator.

"It might have been a lot easier if it had had an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) on board," Shaw said.

Close to a dozen helicopters took to the air over Kaua'i at dawn yesterday, including two Coast Guard choppers, a Navy helicopter, the Hughes 500 leased by the county Fire Department, and several volunteer helicopters from local tour firms. The search was overseen by a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules, which flew overhead and provided communications, command and control.

"As early as 6 a.m., we had 11 helicopters up in the air, searching," said a Kaua'i Fire Department spokesman.

The Bell JetRanger helicopter is capable of carrying a pilot and four passengers. Bali Hai normally runs 45-minute and 55-minute tours clockwise around the central mountains of Kaua'i, flying across cane fields, the Waimea Canyon, Koke'e State Park, Kalalau Valley and along the Na Pali cliffs before turning at the North Shore coastline and flying over the Wai'ale'ale crater and Manawaipuna waterfall.

Based on that flight plan, the aircraft appears to have been nearing the end of its tour, flying between Wai'ale'ale and the waterfall when it crashed. The flight map on Bali Hai's Web site shows the path crossing a ridge between Mount Kahili and Wai'ale'ale near the crash site.

Rescue specialist Edwards said the helicopter appeared to have hit the cliff about 200 feet below the top of the ridge, at an elevation of about 3,500 feet.

A National Transportation Safety Board crash investigator was expected on the island yesterday to try to determine the cause of the crash.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808)245-3074.