Hawaii crash prompts push for new air tour safety regulations

Timothy Hurley, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
·6 min read

Mar. 28—When the people who went skydiving on the ill-fated Oahu Parachute Center plane at Dillingham Airfield on June 21, 2019, paid their money they knew the risks of jumping out of an airplane.

What they didn't know, according to federal air safety officials, was that the aircraft was defective and the pilot poorly trained.

The twin-engine Beechcraft BE65-A90 aircraft crashed shortly after take-off, killing all 10 passengers and the pilot.

That fatal incident and a handful of others across the country prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to call for greater Federal Aviation Administration oversight of certain revenue passenger-carrying air operations.

In a board meeting on Tuesday, the NTSB said people who pay for an air tour, a parachute jump flight or an extreme aerobatic experience flight are likely unaware many companies are not subject to the same maintenance, airworthiness and operational requirements as other revenue flight operations.

"They have the right to expect effective safety standards, " NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said in a statement after the board meeting. "Currently that is not the case, and this exposes customers to unnecessary risks."

The board made six recommendations urging the FAA to enact a more robust regulatory framework for "Part 91 " operators, including new training, maintenance and management policies.

In Hawaii, most air tour companies operate under more stringent Part 135 standards that are more costly to comply with but allow for more flexible operations.

Fewer companies here are authorized to operate commercially under the less stringent general aviation standards under Part 91, which, among other things, restrict operations so that flights begin and end at the same airport and are conducted within a 25-mile radius.

While tours operating under Part 135 undergo more frequent, rigorous aircraft maintenance and pilot training, Part 91 operators are generally subject to less oversight.

The Oahu Parachute Center, now closed, was one of Hawaii's Part 91 operators.

The NTSB has yet to release its final report on the Dillingham crash. However, in a report prepared for Tuesday's meeting, the NTSB said it determined the probable cause of the Mokuleia accident was the pilot's aggressive takeoff maneuver—a move that caused the airplane to stall and the pilot to lose control at an altitude too low for recovery.

Contributing to the accident, according to the report, were :—Too much weight in the rear of the aircraft and the pilot's lack of training and experience with the handling qualities of the airplane.—The failure of the company and its contract mechanic to maintain the airplane in an airworthy condition and to detect and repair the airplane's twisted left wing, which reduced the airplane's stall margin.—The FAA's insufficient regulatory framework for overseeing parachute jump operations.

Contributing to the pilot's training deficiencies, the report said, was the FAA's lack of awareness that the pilot's flight instructor was providing substandard training.

The preliminary report, approved by the NTSB on Tuesday, makes recommendations to the FAA for upgrading Part 91 operational safety, including closing regulatory loopholes, developing a database of those operations, giving inspectors better guidance for surveillance and requiring companies to develop safety management systems similar to those used by larger flight companies, but geared to smaller operations.

Asked for a response to the NTSB recommendations, the FAA provided this statement :

"The FAA has a close working relationship with the NTSB, and the two agencies share a common goal of promoting aviation safety and preventing aircraft accidents. The FAA has a number of initiatives under way to improve the safety of operations conducted under Part 91 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. We take NTSB recommendations very seriously and will carefully consider all of the recommendations and input the Board provided this week."

Richard Schuman, owner of Oahu-based Magnum Helicopters, a Part 135 operator, said he not only welcomes greater FAA oversight of Part 91 companies, but thinks they should be made to operate under Part 135 if they are carrying the public.

"If you're transporting passengers, absolutely you should be Part 135, " he said. "If you and your wife are going on an air tour, the expectation is that the guy flying the thing is doing it with safety in mind. If your operations are not safe, the government has to make it that way for you."

Schuman said it costs at least twice as much to operate a Part 135-regulated aircraft, and it's unfair that some Part 91 operators are able to undercut the companies that are running under more costly safety requirements.

"They are a thorn in the industry at the commercial level, " he said.

Asked to respond to the NTSB recommendations, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said it supports safety management systems for operations "where it makes sense."

"But we must ensure that single or very small Part 91 operators using their airplanes for business (revenue ) purposes do not become subject to onerous, complex, and burdensome reporting requirements, " Jim Coon, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs, said in a statement. "AOPA will continue to support effective, scalable, and sensible safety solutions, including SMS, for aircraft operations that fit the size and risk of the operation."

The Hawaii Helicopter Association declined to comment, saying it would refrain until the NTSB recommendations are finalized.

But the Helicopter Association International issued a statement saying it supports more pilot training and a safety management system for any for-hire passenger-carrying operation.

According to the FAA, the agency has already launched the rule-making process to require safety management systems for on-demand /charter operators and operators conducting air tours under Part 91.

In addition, the FAA in recent years has bumped up the number of inspections required of Part 91 air tour operators, the agency said, and such operations must have drug and alcohol testing programs and follow the safety requirements found in the FAA's air tour rule (Part 136 ).

U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii ), who has tangled with the Hawaii helicopter tour industry in an effort to restrict noise, offered this reaction :

"Tragically, the NTSB's report and recommendations still again highlight the critical need to further regulate our air tour industry. The FAA's current regulations simply are not keeping our skies and ground safe. There are just too many cowboys cutting too many corners with too little real oversight. The FAA must finally implement what the NTSB has urged over too many fatal crashes."------Star-Advertiser staff writer Allison Schaefers contributed to this report.