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TOURISM : Safe Hover Limits Imposed on Hawaii 'Flight-Seeing' Copters


HONOLULU — Robert and Cindy Thompson took their two teen-age daughters on a helicopter ride this summer along the Na Pali coast of Kauai, where majestic cliffs meet the ocean. Halfway through the tour, the engine quit.

As the helicopter sank beneath the waves, the San Diego girls managed to swim to the rocky shore. Their father, another passenger and the pilot drowned. Their mother was found treading water, cradling her husband.

In response to the tragedy and others like it, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued emergency rules for Hawaii's burgeoning "flight-seeing" industry. Late last month, tour aircraft were ordered to fly at least 1,500 feet away from the ground, ocean or any land formation. Over water, helicopters must be equipped with floats or passengers must wear life vests.

The minimum altitude is a drastic change for the $100-million-a-year helicopter business, which thrives on close encounters with Hawaii's unique environment--from hidden valleys and mist-shrouded waterfalls to molten lava. Until now, pilots could fly at any altitude that would allow "an emergency landing without undue hazard." Over populated areas, there was a 300-foot minimum altitude.

Tour operators fear the new rule may increase risks by bunching helicopters together at 1,500 feet, and could wipe out many of the views that make touring attractive.

"You don't have to be a foot away, but certainly closer than 1,500 feet," said Bob DeCamp, president of the Hawaii Helicopter Operators Assn. "We are in favor of regulations if they do improve safety. We have questions about whether this will."

Unlike airplanes, helicopters can hover close to scenic spots, offering a breathtaking experience to passengers. "Fly into the heart and heat of an active volcano," tempts one brochure. "Close enough to waterfalls to feel the cooling mist," boasts another.

Federal regulators note, however, that Hawaii's unusual landscape offers few suitable landing sites, and winds are unpredictable. The 1,500-foot minimum altitude will give pilots more time to react in an emergency, prepare their passengers and maneuver to a safe landing, the FAA says.

"While passengers are often attracted to the thrill associated with low-flying air tours, they are generally not aware of the risks involved," the FAA said in its report on the new rules. The agency points to an "escalation of air tour accidents" to justify the emergency rules. Twenty-four people died in such accidents in Hawaii in the past three years, the FAA said. In the previous nine years, another 24 people were killed.

"It has been chaos in the skies out here," said Denise Antolini, attorney for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which joined a dozen other groups in petitioning the FAA.

But DeCamp says it's unfair to single out the Hawaii helicopter business. The industry has grown from 35 helicopters in 1982 to 90 today, he said, so naturally the number of accidents has risen. What's more relevant, he notes, is the rate of accidents.

DeCamp said his calculations show that Hawaii tour helicopters had 1.1 accidents per 100,000 hours of flight time last year, compared to 6.2 for copters nationally and 7.1 for general aviation nationwide. In 1992, the rate was 3.9 accidents for Hawaii tour helicopters, 7.0 for copters nationally and 7.2 for general aviation, he said.

The rules "will have a tremendous impact on our business," said Bill Payne, general manager of Papillon Hawaiian Helicopters, the state's largest operator. "The altitude restriction virtually eliminates the middle of the islands, and that is what people want to see."

Jeff Shepherd, a dentist vacationing from San Luis Obispo, agrees. Stepping off a helicopter with his three young children after a tour of the east Maui rain forest, he raved about coming within 100 feet of a waterfall. Staying 1,500 feet away, the length of five football fields, would "wreck the fun of the ride," he said.

The FAA is accepting comments on the Hawaii rules until Dec. 27.

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