Copter tour owners defend safety record By Nina Wu

The veteran operators of three helicopter tour companies in Hawaii said the industry has a good record in the state and operates within federal rules and regulations.

Despite the tragic helicopter crash on Oneawa Street in Kailua in late last month that killed all three on board — the male pilot and two female passengers — they said helicopter tour operators in the state are responsible and make safety a top priority.

They said grounding all helicopter tours, as some legislators have requested, would result in job losses.

“I have 79 families that depend on us,” said Richard Schuman, owner of Magnum Helicopters on Oahu. “We’re not that rogue operation that some people think we are. We don’t get to fly around and disturb neighborhoods and look in people’s windows.”

Schuman, along with Casey Riemer of Jack Harter Helicopters in Lihue, Kauai, and Calvin Dorn, CEO of Paradise Helicopters on the Big Island, met with the Star-Advertiser on Tuesday to discuss safety, flight altitude regulations and noise concerns.

When state Rep. Cynthia Thielen requested that all tour and commercial helicopter operations in the state be immediately grounded until the crash is thoroughly investigated, Schuman said he immediately sent her an email out of concern for the industry.

The president of Schuman Aviation Company, which runs Magnum Helicopters, formerly known as Makani Kai Helicopters, said in the company’s three decades in operation, it has no record of passengers being hurt or injured. The company also flies for CBS Television Studios’ “Hawaii Five-0” and “Magnum P.I.”

“Makani Kai Helicopters started in 1988, now known as Magnum Helicopters, has never hurt, injured, or caused any passenger to seek medical treatment from a helicopter tour, never,” said Schuman in a followup email. “We have not even had a vehicle accident where the passengers in the bus required medical treatment and we pick up 99.9% of all our passengers in Waikiki and shuttle them to the airport.”

However, he admitted the company has crashed four times performing utility and film work.

While the three tour operators could not say what caused the Kailua crash, they did offer some thoughts on the Robinson R44, the aircraft involved in the crash, which entered the Hawaii market as a less expensive aircraft.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono demanded an investigation into the crash in Kailua, including an account of all helicopter accidents in Hawaii over the last five years from federal agencies as well as a detailed history of problems associated with the Robinson R44.

The Robinson R44 is one of the world’s best-selling civilian helicopters, and relatively inexpensive. It costs about $400,000, according to the operators, less than the $750,000 to $3 million of other helicopter models.

“That aircraft is an absolute, good aircraft,” said Schuman. “Safe. But, unfortunately, that aircraft in the wrong hands is deadly.”

The aircraft has “an inherent problem” they said, called mast bumping, which requires special training. At the same time, they said, many less-experienced pilots are flying the Robinson R44s as a start to their careers.

Still, without records, they could not say whether those were factors contributing to the crash.

“Every helicopter that’s flown an air tour is certificated by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) so it can be safe to fly,” said Dorn. “Every pilot goes through training depends on the company. If you operate and maintain the aircraft according to the flight manual, and follow the FAA regulations, 99.9% of the time you’re going to have a good outcome on a helicopter or airplane flight. It’s the rare occasion when things don’t go right that an accident occurs.”

Even though the Robinson R44 has intrinsic issues, he said, operated properly, “it’s going to be a good flight.”

In his decades of experience, Dorn said this was the first accident he could recall in a residential neighborhood. A greater concern for helicopter pilots is the danger of running into the side of a mountain.

Riemer said despite what some have alleged, there are not necessarily more helicopter tour operators than in the past. The number of tours trends with the number of visitors to the isles.

“We’re at a peak right now, and starting to shoulder off,” he said. “So we don’t anticipate a lot of growth.”

On Kauai, Riemer said the industry has been able to work with the community to address concerns about noise and routes.

The Hawaii Helicopter Association, which formed about a year ago to ensure responsible helicopter operations in the state, has 11 members total. Jack Harter, Paradise and Magnum Helicopters are all members. Novictor Helicopters, the operator of the helicopter that crashed in Kailua, is also a member.

“I think we’re always working to have a better industry,” said Dorn. “We’re always focused on safety. Safety is the first thing we always think of from the beginning of the day to the end of the day.”

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