Feds say ultra-light aircraft companies violated law with Kauai air tours
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -
A federal investigation into an ultra-light plane crash that killed two people on Kauai two years ago raises the possibility that the air tour company was breaking the law.
That's because federal authorities said a number of Hawaii ultra-light aircraft operators here have illegally conducted air tours under the guise of teaching people to fly.
The problem has improved in recent years because several pilot-owners have died in crashes on Kauai, and their businesses have closed, but also because the Federal Aviation Administration has been cracking down.
Gerry Charlebois, 54, an experienced and well-respected pilot and owner of Birds in Paradise powered hang glider school and tour company on Kauai, died in the March 2014 crash near Polihale Beach. His passenger, Mark McKenzie, a 53-year-old visitor from Ontario, Canada also died in the crash.
It's one of four fatal accidents in Hawaii in the last few years of these ultra-light aircraft during what the companies called "instructional flights."
"These were clearly tours,” said personal injury attorney Rick Fried, who represented people who were injured and killed in ultra-light aircraft accidents on Kauai who had paid for air tours.
"You're getting a tour. But it's illegal. They're not licensed to do that. They're not trained," Fried said.
The National Transportation Safety Board said an FAA investigation after a previous Kauai ultra-light accident found that companies on the Garden Island were conducting flight tours under the guise of flight instruction.
The FAA investigation found hundreds of flights listed as "introductory flights."
"An FAA inspector noted that there was no follow-up training or any repeat students. He further stated that the operators did not conduct any ground school training, nor did they have the facilities to do so," an NTSB report said.
Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman in Los Angeles, said was he speaking in general because he cannot discuss any active investigation.
"We increased our surveillance of these operators, we met multiple times with them to remind them that federal regulations prohibit offering air tours using these kinds of aircraft," Gregor said.
"We sent notices to hotels where these pilots were advertising to alert the hotels about the regulations and several hotels stopped carrying those pilots' brochures," Gregor added.
Gregor said some allegations of wrongdoing are difficult to prove. When FAA inspectors believed these ultra-light aircraft companies had violated the law, passengers corroborated pilots' claims that the purpose of the flight was for instruction instead of an air tour.
The FAA said there are very few ultra-light aircraft companies left in Hawaii now and its investigators are convinced those remaining are legimately teaching students to fly instead of conducting air tours.