POLIHALE, KAUAI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Firefighters have recovered the bodies of the pilot and passenger involved in Tuesday's aircraft crash in Waiakamoo Valley in Polihale.
Kauai police identify the victims as:
Pilot: Gerry Charlebois, age 54 of Kapahi, Kaua'i
Passenger: Mark McKenzie, age 53 of Pickering, Ontario, Canada
Charlebois is the owner of Birds in Paradise, a powered hang glider school and tour company on Kauai.
Friends say Charlebois was not just well-known and respected, but describe him as "Hawai'i's ultralight pioneer".
Peter Michelmore, the Hawai'i regional safety director for the U.S. Hanggliding & Paragliding Association, called news of Charlebois' death shocking.
"It would be like hearing that the best surfer in the world just died surfing. Gerry Charlebois was probably one of the world's top ultralight pilots," said Michel More, who has known Charlebois more than 20 years.
According to the Birds in Paradise website, Charlebois was a Master Rated Hangglider Pilot with the United States Hanggliding & Paragliding Association. The description of Charlebois goes on to say he had thousands of hours of experience operating ultralight trikes, and was also a FAA-certified Flight Instructor and mechanic.
"I think his legacy will be that he had 50,000 hours of flying in Hawai'i and pointing out some of the best sights on Kaua'i and sharing his love of flying with all those people," said Michel More.
Industry colleagues say Charlebois was enthusiastic, proficient and very safety-oriented. Charlebois shared his concerns with Hawaii News Now after two fatal ultralight crashes on Kauai in 2011.
"There's this one guy that we've been complaining about who always flies very low and unsafe," he explained over the phone after two people were killed in an accident off Honopu Beach.
Kaua'i County Fire officials say Tuesday morning's crash was initially reported as a brush fire. Deputy Fire Chief John Blalock says when emergency crews arrived on scene they realized what had happened and immediately dispatched a rescue helicopter to get a better view.
"The crash area was partially in the valley, in an area called Waiakamo'o Valley, a little north of Polihale Beach. It is a nice area and it was pretty clear this morning. It is probably one of the routes that they normally use -- as far as they use for doing sightseeing on the west side of our island," explained Blalock.
Kaua'i Police, along with personnel from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board, are still investigating but friends hear Charlebois was flying with a student.
"I know that there were two ultralights in the air at the time," said David Goto, spokesperson for the Hawaiian Hang Gliding Association, who met Charlebois for the first time 35 years ago.
It's unclear if the pilot of the second ultralight was immediately aware of what happened.
"I think that he didn't witness it, but when he failed to make radio contact with Gerry he turned around and went back to where he last saw him," described Goto.
FAA records confirm the aircraft, which is officially categorized as a Special Light Sport Aircraft, was owned by Birds in Paradise. The company was founded by Charlebois in 1990 and operates out of Port Allen Airport in Hanapepe. The aircraft was an Evolution Trikes REVO model with a 4-cycle engine and was manufactured in 2010. Records indicate it had a current FAA certificate.
Friends say Charlebois knew Kaua'i probably better than any other pilot who flew on the island. His company website has links to dozens of YouTube videos taken by wing-mounted cameras on gliders. According to the page, Charlebois was named photojournalist of the year in 1997 by the U.S. Ultralight Association. Charlebois has also produced two films about Kaua'i, Epic Kaua'i and Extreme Kaua'i.
"We really want to show the beauty of Kaua'i and what we offer, not only to those that are visiting but also to our locals that are here, and that's part of our uniqueness, I think, of Kauai. It's tragic that these things happen as we try to showcase what we have on Kaua'i. Our condolences go out and prayers are with the families," said Deputy Fire Chief Blalock.
This is the first light sport aircraft crash on Kauai since 2011, when two separate crashes resulted in four fatalities. Two people were killed in a crash off Kauai's south shore in February of that year. Then in May, a pilot and passenger died when a light sport aircraft crashed in waters off Kauai's north shore.
Friends say Charlebois' death is a major loss for the industry and hope he will be remembered as a trailblazer for the sport.
"Like a bird. Yeah, he's probably the best bird, human bird, in Hawai'i. He's a good guy," said Michelmore.
Volunteers with Life's Bridges, a grief counseling service, are assisting families of the victims.