The company whose skydiving plane crashed June 21 at Dillingham Airfield killing all 11 aboard, had a permit to conduct parachute rigging at the state airport, not skydiving operations.
At the time of the fatal crash in Mokuleia, which was the nation’s worst civilian air crash since 2011, the state Department of Transportation did not have a permit on file for George Rivera’s skydiving operation, Oahu Parachute Center LLC, or an aircraft registration for the downed Beechcraft 65-A90.
According to public records, Rivera’s permissions from the state to operate at Dillingham Airfield were limited to a revocable permit issued to his other business, Hawaii Parachute Center LLC, to conduct parachute rigging activities. However, DOT did not attempt to revoke that permit or evict Rivera and his operations from the airfield until June 26 — five days after the crash.
DOT spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige issued a news release at the close of business Wednesday with links to several public documents that the Honolulu Star-Advertiser previously requested. Kunishige, who did not answer her phone after issuing the news release, had said earlier that the “state could not release additional information.”
Gov. David Ige’s office did not respond to a request for comment from the Star-Advertiser.
Rivera’s revocable permit for rigging operations dates back to an effective date of Jan. 1, 2010. However, according to state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA) records, the company was organized Nov. 26, 2008. The state’s agreement with Hawaii Parachute Center LLC, which wasn’t signed until Sept. 8, 2010, required the company to provide a security deposit of roughly $1,180 and pay about $393 per month to rent a parachute loft.
On June 5, some 17 days before the crash, the state sent Rivera an application for a revocable permit to lease airfield space for skydiving operations for Oahu Parachute Center, which DCCA records show was registered June 29, 2017.
But that application, which had more stringent requirements than the revocable permit for Rivera’s rigging operation, was never signed. If Rivera had signed the permit for a skydiving operation, monthly rent would have been about $7,059 and the security deposit would have been about $21,177. The state also was requiring commercial general liability insurance naming “the state as additional insured, with a combined single limit coverage of at least $1,000,000 per occurrence and $2,000,000 aggregate for bodily injury and damage to property per occurrence.”
Rivera did not return a call from the Star-Advertiser seeking information about the skydiving operation’s lack of permits and the company’s insurance status.
Rivera’s issues with DOT appear to go back to April 16 when DOT sent him a cease-and-desist letter saying that officials had discovered that Hawaii Parachute Center was “not in good standing” with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and that Oahu Parachute Center was not a registered tenant of the airfield. DOT gave Hawaii Parachute Center LLC until May 15 to provide proof of tax clearance certificates from the county and the state and to provide proof that DCCA had issued a “certificate of good standing.”
DCCA spokesman William Nhieu said Wednesday that at the time DOT sent the cease-and-desist letter to Hawaii Parachute Center, the business was not in good standing because it had not filed annual reports for 2017 and 2018. The company filed the reports on May 13, which ironically resulted in DCCA’s issuance of a certificate of good standing Wednesday certifying that Hawaii Parachute Center “is duly authorized to transact business.”
“We’re the paperwork processors,” Nhieu said. “It’s up to the entity that requires them to be in good standing to gauge it.”
It’s unclear how the lack of oversight will impact the crash aftermath. Among the dead are six people who worked at Oahu Parachute Center, including the pilot, three tandem parachute instructors and two camera operators. Three tourists and two solo jumpers, who decided to join the flight at the last minute, also were killed when the aircraft crashed at 6:22 p.m.
The Honolulu Medical Examiner’s Office has identified the 11 crash victims as Larry Lemaster, 50, James Lisenbee, 48, Jerome Renck, 42, Daniel Herndon, 35, Casey Williamson, 29, Michael Martin, 32, and Jordan Tehero, 23, of Hawaii; Joshua Drablos, 27, a U.S. military member from Virginia stationed in Hawaii; Ashley Weikel, 26, and Bryan Weikel, 27, of Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Nikolas Glebov, 28, of St. Paul, Minn.
It’s uncertain if the Oahu Parachute Center workers killed in the crash were employees of the business or independent contractors, a status that would not have triggered the same reporting or benefit requirements.
What is known is that Oahu Parachute Center did not have any registrations on file with the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations for unemployment, workers’ compensation, prepaid health care or temporary disability insurance, according to DLIR spokesman William Kunstman. That means that the Oahu Parachute Center workers who were killed weren’t covered by the workers’ comp statutes that provide death benefits of about $280,000 for those killed on the job if their injuries weren’t caused intentionally or from intoxication.
U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) said Tuesday that airspace and the safety and details of aircraft operations typically are the responsibility of the federal government. However, Case said the county and state have roles to play in ensuring that operators who are running aviation businesses are in full compliance with their requirements.
Case, who is pushing for stricter aviation regulations, said he doesn’t want to “indict every single operator throughout Hawaii” and that he knows some that are “good solid people who try to comply with the laws.”
But, he said, “too many are fly-by-night operators” and when they cut corners from a business regulatory standpoint likely “will cut corners with safety.”
Case said he plans to meet with senior leadership from the Federal Aviation Administration to urge them to increase safety regulations to comply fully with the NTSB’s 2008 Special Investigation Report on the Safety of Parachute Jump Operations. In the wake of the crash, the NTSB also urged the FAA, which only adopted a portion of the 2008 recommendations, to categorize parachuting service operators in a way that requires their planes to undergo more extensive maintenance and inspections.
Robert Katz, a Dallas-based flight instructor and 38-year pilot who tracks plane crashes nationwide, said he too wants to see greater regulation of his industry.
“Right now, it’s the fox guarding the chickens,” Katz said. “The FAA doesn’t budget resources and manpower to ensure compliance — most things are still on an honor system and that’s easy to abuse.”
Based on the NTSB preliminary report and his own experience, Katz said he expects that the plane in the Dillingham crash may have been overloaded, an avoidable cause. The NTSB has said the plane can carry up to 13 people, but Katz said 11 could have been too many if the combined weight of the people and their equipment exceeded guidelines or wasn’t properly balanced.
NTSB issued its preliminary report on the crash Monday, but isn’t expected to determine a cause for the crash for another 18 to 24 months. NTSB investigators are looking into weather and runway conditions, the pilot’s logbook and training records as well as weight and balance of the aircraft.
NTSB’S preliminary report quoted eyewitness accounts from a parachute instructor at the Oahu Parachute Center,. The instructor told the NTSB that the plane seemed to be fine as it taxied down the runway to take off, but at about 150 to 200 feet in the air, it began turning, then hit the ground nose first and burst into flames.
“He could hear the engines during the initial ground roll and stated that the sound was normal, consistent with the engines operating at high power,” the report said.
When the plane came into his view as it headed toward him, the aircraft was at an altitude of 150 to 200 feet and appeared to be turning. “He could see its belly, with the top of the cabin facing the ocean to the north. The airplane then struck the ground in a nose-down attitude, and a fireball erupted,” the report said.
A surveillance video at the southeast corner of the airfield showed the Beechcraft 65-A90 plane was upside down at a 45-degree angle to the ground just before impact, the report said.
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Star-Advertiser reporter Rosemarie Bernardo contributed to this story.