A National Transportation Safety Board report summarizing a December 2009 helicopter crash in East Maui indicated that there was no time for the pilot to restart his engine after a "simulated forced landing" exercise as the chopper was "rapidly approaching ground."
The passenger in the chopper, a Federal Aviation Administration inspector who was performing a commercial pilot competency check, told investigators that he and the Sunshine Helicopters pilot "were both looking for a suitable field (to land in), but there were not a lot to choose from."
The only suitable landing site was where the chopper crashed, about 1.3 miles southeast of Hana, he said in the report.
A Sunshine Helicopters chopper had a total loss of power when a veteran pilot was undergoing a simulated forced landing with a Federal Aviation Administration inspector check pilot Dec. 16, 2009. The helicopter landed in this field. Both men suffered serious injuries.
National Transportation Safety Board photo
"He said the pilot did a good job trying to get to the field," the report said.
The pilot, Stephen Shull, acknowledged in the report that the helicopter was getting low, about 1,000 feet above the ground, so he didn't try to restart the engine. Instead, he looked for a place to land. The pilot said that there was a lot of grass and trees in the area and since trees could penetrate the helicopter, he picked the grass area to land, the report said.
Shull, 42, and his passenger, FAA inspector check pilot Donald Andera, 51, were seriously injured in the crash, the report said.
The two were flying in an Aerospatiale helicopter operated by Sunshine Helicopters out of Kahului on the afternoon of Dec. 16, 2009. The helicopter experienced a total loss of engine power during a simulated forced landing and impacted hard on uneven, downsloping terrain and was substantially damaged, the report said.
The National Transportation Safety Board released its factual report Thursday. The final report with probable cause information will be released later. An NTSB official said Monday that he did not know when that report would be issued.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said Monday that his agency does not comment on reports while it is in its investigation stages and referred questions to the NTSB.
A message left with a Sunshine Helicopters official Monday afternoon was not immediately returned.
In April, U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren ruled that the FAA was not at fault in the incident in which the helicopter crashed after Andera initiated a simulated engine failure. Sunshine Helicopters, United States Aviation Underwriters Inc. and Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. filed lawsuits against the federal government, seeking damages for property and business loans. The crash destroyed the $1.5 million helicopter.
Andera testified that he moved the fuel control lever only slightly, but the plaintiffs claimed he pulled it too far.
After Kurren's ruling, Sunshine Helicopters President Ross Scott said his company would seek a reconsideration of the decision.
Shull, who has been described as a veteran pilot, had completed the oral portion of the examination and discussed with Andera, another veteran pilot, what would be done on the flight, including the simulated loss of engine power, during the round trip between Kahului and Hana airports.
In the report, Andera said the two men were flying about 3,000 feet above the ocean about 1 mile south of the Hana Airport when he said "simulated forced landing" to the pilot. Andera said there was no defined flight idle position to put the fuel flow control lever in (basically the throttle) to ascertain the power setting.
He brought the throttle out of the full open flight run position back toward flight idle in a position that kept it from springing back into the gate. The purpose of moving the throttle out of the gate was to be certain the engine was not supplying power during the maneuver, the report said.
Andera said in the report that he and the pilot had been briefed about this procedure prior to the flight; they were to recover with power before getting too low.
In the report, Andera said that among the actions the pilot took was to turn toward Hana Airport. The inspector questioned the pilot about if he thought they were going to make it to the airport. At that point, Andera believed the engine was no longer operating and moved the throttle all the way forward, but it appeared they were not going to get the engine back.
Shull said in the report that he became aware that the simulated forced landing had turned into a real forced landing when the helicopter yawed and the generator warning light started to illuminate.
The pilot said said he and Andera talked briefly about making it to Hana Airport once they realized the engine had stopped running. Shull decided that they did not have enough altitude to reach the airport and chose a landing spot, the report said.
Two days after the crash, officials observed that the helicopter had hit a vegetation covered lava rock formation, about 1 mile south of Hana Airport, the report said. The helicopter appeared to have bounced and traveled about 40 feet, rotating about 90 degrees to the right before coming to rest. The wreckage had signatures consistent with impact at a high vertical speed with relatively low forward speed.
The report said that an investigation revealed that the helicopter's engine had inadvertently shut down four prior times, including in a March 14, 2009, event. All four of the events occurred when the helicopter was on the ground and three of them occurred when pilots were bringing the throttle back to slow the engine speed to ground idle during the post-flight engine cool-down period, the report said.
With the exception of the March 14 event, none of the shutdowns were documented in the company system, the report added.
In an interview with The Maui News in May, Scott said the company did investigate the prior shutdowns and determined they occurred when pilots were not watching the Ng gauge, which monitors the speed of the engine.
Scott said that the company retrained everyone and didn't have an incident after that and that the engine was working fine when the FAA tested it.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.