NTSB says pilot's loss of control caused Kauai ultra-light crash
By Leo Azambuja
The Garden Island
LIHUE — A National Transportation Safety Board report says a pilot's loss of control caused by "severe updrafts and downdrafts" is to blame for a small-aircraft crash on Kauai last year that badly injured the pilot and a flight student.
The aircraft crashed on the afternoon of Aug. 1, 2009 on a steep hillside 12 miles northwest of Lihue, 45 minutes after taking off from Port Allen in Hanapepe.
(The ultra-light, operated by Birds of Paradise, was an Airborne Windsports X-912-L powered hang glider similar to the one that went down in Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island last week, killing pilot Tedd Hecklin and passenger Kathryn Moran.)
The NTSB reported that a safety inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration said the pilot was on top of a broken cloud deck trying to find a hole to descend to a crater.
As the pilot descended into the hole, it closed up, and severe updrafts and downdrafts caused him to lose control of the aircraft, the report said.
"That pilot was stupid. He's lucky to be alive," said Harry Dalsey, who flies small planes for another tour company.
"We're supposed to stay away from the clouds," said Dalsey, explaining that you can get disoriented or run into a mountain.
Pilot Thomas Defino, through his attorney, has denied any liability in the accident. Flight student Neil S. Shoemaker, a Virginia engineer whose leg was broken in two places during the accident, filed a negligence lawsuit a few weeks after the crash, in Honolulu federal court.
A jury trial is scheduled for next September, and a first settlement conference is scheduled for June.
According to the NTSB report, the pilot said that after reaching an altitude of about 3,000 feet, he began a slow descent inside a crater in an area that "provided more than enough VFR (visual flight rules weather) to the ground below."
The pilot stated that his aircraft was "violently rocked" in a matter of seconds. He held on to the control bar and applied full power to try to bring the aircraft back to a calm area, but the control bar was ripped from his hands with "severe force."
With the ground approaching and "all other opportunities exhausted," the pilot pulled the aircraft's emergency parachute about 200 to 300 feet above the ground and lost consciousness at that point.
The aircraft hit a hillside and its parachute became entangled in the surrounding trees, preventing the plane from sliding further down the cliff.
The student pilot who was flying in the same aircraft, however, had a slightly different story, according to the report.
As the aircraft headed toward the mountains and into overcast skies, the flight instructor said he found a hole in the clouds to drop down, according to the student's statement. The student also said that to him it looked more like a dark spot rather than a hole.
The student said another flight instructor for the same company flying nearby radioed them saying: "No, it's closing up." As soon as the aircraft entered the "hole" it stopped flying and started bouncing like "popcorn," the student said in the statement.
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