Why helicopter tour safety is so important

Travelers must be cautious when booking any helicopter tour!

Heliport at Juneau, Alaska helicopter tour to four glaciers. Copyright © 2020 NSL Photography. All Rights Reserved.Recently, a tour helicopter with six travelers aboard crashed. It flew into a ridge on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, about 25 minutes after take-off. The flight set out to tour Kauai’s Na Pali Coast, known for its towering sea cliffs.

All seven aboard, the pilot and tourists, were killed.

Kauai has some of the most magnificent scenery in the world. Much of it is rugged terrain. On the Na Pali Coast, there are almost no locations at which emergency helicopter landings are possible. Weather conditions in the area, including cloud cover and winds, can rapidly change. They are hard to predict. The Na Pali Coast is difficult to fly.

For perspective, here are statistics. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in the period from January, 2009, through August, 2018, there were 1,302 non-military helicopter accidents in the U.S., of which 211 had fatalities. In them, 402 pilots and passengers died. During that same time period, there was one fatality in all U.S. scheduled commercial aviation.

While the cause of the crash is not yet known. We can learn from it and the tour it was to fly.

Book helicopters FAA certified to fly passengers, not just photographers

FAA Passenger certification vs aerial photography licensing:
While you want to be able to take spectacular photographs during a helicopter tour, you want to be safe. Only choose to fly in a helicopter that’s licensed to carry passengers, not just take a photographer on a photo jaunt. In the U.S., fly in a helicopter with an FAA Part 135 Air Carrier Certification, not a Part 91 license. Helicopters flying under a Part 135 certification require more pilot training and have stricter requirements for pilot flight hours and aircraft.

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Single engine or dual-engine helicopter:
The Airbus/American Eurocopter AS350 B2 helicopter in the Kauai accident was a single-engine aircraft. If one engine fails in a dual-engine helicopter, the other will likely still be in operation. It is safer to fly. While I’ve flown on single-engine helicopters many times, I wouldn’t do it on tours with difficult terrain like Kauai. There are too few, difficult spots for emergency landings and weather conditions can deteriorate quickly.

TOPS membership:
Ask if the company is a TOPS (Tour Operators Program of Safety) member. Historically, TOPS members have better safety records than the industry at large. TOPS’s mission is “to provide the public with access to scenic areas while in the care of good, safe and professional air tour operators.”

All helicopter passenger restraint systems must be quick release

Passenger restraint systems:
Ask if the tour will be doors-off or doors-on. A doors-off tour means the doors to the helicopter are either left open or totally removed. Don’t ever get into a helicopter for which you’re given a sharp knife or box cutter to use in an emergency. Passengers will need to cut themself free from the restraint harness.

Juneau, Alaska helicopter tour to four glaciers Copyright © 2020 NSL Photography. All Rights Reserved.When flying doors-off, every passenger should be equipped with a multi-point passenger restraint system. They will need a seat/shoulder belt, with a single point push-button release that holds all restraint belts. In an emergency, every passenger can easily and quickly release their restraint system and exit the helicopter. If flying doors-on, a traditional seat belt with a quick-release system, not one that requires you to pull the belt out of the buckle, is essential.

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Flotation devices:
If you’ll be flying over or near water, find out if the helicopter has flotation equipment that, once activated, will prevent the helicopter from sinking. Ask if you’ll be supplied with an approved personal flotation device.

Emergency preparation:
Many ignore or tune out the safety talk or video prior to taking off on a commercial jetliner. Don’t do the same with the safety talk prior to your helicopter tour flight. You won’t have a bunch of flight attendants to help you in an emergency and your pilot will be far too busy to help each passenger while trying to get the helicopter on the ground safely. Each passenger needs to know what to do.

Don’t board a helicopter unless the safety talk fully prepares you for an emergency

If the safety talk doesn’t explain exactly what you need to do in case of an emergency, don’t get into the helicopter.

Weather conditions:
Unlike when flying on commercial jets, on a helicopter tour you won’t be able to fly above bad weather. In locations like Kauai, where weather conditions can rapidly change and are hard to predict, it’s important that the tour company and their pilots are willing to cancel when conditions for their tours aren’t favorable. Consider that even when the only problem is a rough ride due to winds and other conditions, you won’t enjoy the tour. I ask if customers can cancel their reservation, without penalty, if they decide weather conditions make flying uncomfortable.

Before booking a helicopter tour, research the company and the tour you’re considering. Check if there’s any FAA Accident and Incident Data about the company. Check reviews of the company and the specific tour you’re considering. Get answers about the issues I’ve discussed above. Finally, ask about the seating arrangement. You want to be safe, but you also don’t want to be stuck in a middle seat with a limited view for your flight. The flight should be both safe and fun.

(Images: Heliport at Juneau, Alaska helicopter tour to four glaciers and Juneau, Alaska helicopter tour to four glaciers, Copyright © 2020 NSL Photography. All Rights Reserved.)