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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 9:53 p.m., Thursday, March 8, 2007

Pilot, 3 tourists killed in Kaua'i crash

Advertiser Staff


A Heli USA helicopter crashed today at the Princeville Airport in Kaua'i.

THOMAS G. TAMURA | Special to The Advertiser

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Joe Sulak posed in front of a helicopter in this picture posted on his Web site, www.helicopterjoe.com. Sulak was killed Thursday in the crash on Kaua’i of the tour helicopter he was piloting.


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PRINCEVILLE, Kaua'i — Three Mainland tourists and a Kaua'i pilot were killed today when their sightseeing helicopter crashed at the Princeville Airport.

Joe "Helicopter Joe" Sulak was the pilot of the A-Star helicopter owned by Heli USA.

Kaua'i County Public information Officer Mary Daubert said two of the passengers were from New York, two from California and two from Arksansas. One from each state was reported dead.

The pilot had more than 10,000 hours in the cockpit of A-Stars, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.

Three people were initially killed in the crash, Kaua'i fire officials said. A fourth person who survived the crash died while being transported to Wilcox Hospital, Kaua'i officials reported tonight.

The four original survivors included a female and four males. Fire officials did not identify the gender of the fourth person who died.

The three survivors are being treated at Wilcox Hospital.

The crash occurred at 3:02 p.m. shortly after the pilot radioed his company dispatcher that he was having hydraulics problems.

At the crash site this afternoon, the cockpit of the A-Star helicopter was clearly crushed and its yellow, bulbous floats had been deployed.

The helicopter's tail boom was snapped but still attached.

The pilot was about two miles out from Princeville and was trying to return to the airport, Gregor said. The helicopter crashed soon afterward on the northwest end of the Princeville Airport.

FAA and National Transportation Safety Board inspectors will conduct "exhaustive" investigations, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.

Gregor was not familiar with any history of hydraulic problems with A-Star aircraft.

Heli USA was not answering calls to its Hawai'i offices. Heli USA officials in Las Vegas did not return phone calls.

It is the fifth fatal tour helicopter crash on Kaua'i in less than four years. The most recent fatal incident before today's crash also involved a Heli USA helicopter, and occurred Sept. 23, 2005, when one of the company's A-Star helicopters ditched into the ocean off Ha'ena after encountering severe weather. Three of the six people aboard died: two from drowning and a third from cardiac arrest caused by near drowning.

Today's crash comes during a time of heightened scrutiny of Hawai'i air tour operators.

The National Transportation Safety Board last month accused the FAA of failing to properly oversee and regulate air tours in the Islands. The board said the FAA was not providing adequate staffing at the Honolulu Flight Standards District Office to effectively monitor tour operations. Such surveillance could have corrected the type of risky flying by pilots that contributed to recent crashes, such as straying off normal flight routes to cross ridges at low altitudes, and flying into bad weather, the NTSB said.

The board also has recommended increased safety regulations, including requiring tour helicopters that fly over the ocean to be equipped with fixed or inflatable floats, a training program for pilots to addresses the Islands' various weather patterns and in-flight procedures, and creating a system using Global Positioning System satellites to give air tour pilots more information about local weather and air traffic.

Other recommendations included providing rest breaks for pilots and developing an entity to oversee commercial air tour operations in the state.

On its web site, Heli USA Airways says it is the largest helicopter sightseeing company in the Western United States and has operations on Kaua'i and O'ahu in Hawai'i. The company operates out of the Princeville, Lihue and Honolulu airports with a fleet of A-Star helicopters.

According to a 2002 report in TraveAge West, Heli USA entered the Hawai'i market in December 2000 when it purchased the assets of Hawaiian Helicopters on Kaua'i. In 2003 it expanded with O'ahu tour flights.

The company also has flights over Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, carrying more than 120,000 people annually on its tours.

The Heli USA Web site says the company has the largest fleet of million-dollar A-Star Executive Helicopters in the Western United States.

The aircraft is favored for sightseeing because it has all forward-facing seats.

Air tours represent one of Hawai'i's most popular attractions. About one in 10 tourists who visited the Islands in 2005 took an air tour, state tourism officials said.

That is more than 750,000 passengers paying about $200 for a typical 45-minute ride.