An Independent Organization Makes Helicopter Tour Safety A Priority

Richard Schuman
Richard Schuman
Lesa Cyr
Lesa Cyr

HONOLULU (KHNL )- In a major tourist destination like Hawaii, helicopter tours are big business. Makani Kai Helicopters at Honolulu International Airport is one of the four Hawaii members of TOPS, or Tour Operators Program of Safety. Member companies go beyond current federal rules.

These tourists get ready for their first helicopter ride. Understandably, they're a bit antsy.

"Excited and nervous," said Lesa Cyr, a visitor from California. "A little bit, but excited."

"A little nervous," added Tony Cappellano, also from California. "I've never done it and always was hesitant to get on a helicopter ride."

They're in good hands. In its almost 20-year history, Makani Kai has no tour-related accidents. Safety is its top priority.

"If you need to scrimp on anything, you don't do it on maintenance," said Richard Schuman, the company's owner. "And you need to operate your company as if you're going to put your own family on board."

In keeping with that philosophy, Makani Kai is a member of TOPS, an independent national organization overseeing helicopter safety.

"It makes me feel more at ease and more relaxed when you hear stuff like that," said Cappellano.

This means pilots like Eiki Miyasato have complete autonomy when they climb into the cockpit.

"Something weather or some mechanical, anything you see is not right, you will terminate the operation," said Miyasato. "And you will not fly until problem solved."

After a safety briefing, these passengers are ready to climb aboard. And the philosophy of safety even extends to the helicopter itself.

As part of that commitment, helicopters are equipped with flotation devices for possible water landing and strobe lights so they are more visible to other aircraft.

After an hour tour, these flying aces are back on the ground, safe and sound.

"It was awesome. Pretty good," said Cappellano. "It was an awesome experience. I'd do it again if I had to."

"I've been to Hawaii five time and it was the most I've seen of the island," said Cyr. "It was wonderful. It could've been another hour and it would've been great."

No one is required to join TOPS. Membership is strictly voluntary. Only about a third of Hawaii helicopter companies are members.

TOPS began in 1993 with a group of helicopter tour operators. They wanted to create an independent organization to oversee safety for its members. They share their expertise and ideas for safer flying. And each member has to go through some rigorous checks.

"The most important component of the organization is the mandatory annual external audit of each regular member to determine whether the member is not only in compliance with the rules of the organization, but it also adds the ability of outside eyes to watch how the company operates on a day to day basis," said Robert Butler, TOPS' executive director.

This additional oversight helps TOPS members achieve better safety records. On an average, TOPS members have about 90 percent fewer accidents than the general civilian aviation community.