Further highlighting the importance of proper aircraft maintenance in preventing fatalities, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has blamed a deadly helicopter crash on improper maintenance. The tragedy occurred almost exactly two years ago as a group of tourists was on a sightseeing tour in Honolulu, Hawaii. A 16-year-old passenger died in the crash.
Bell 206B Helicopter “Fell Out of the Sky” During Sightseeing Tour
On February 18, 2016, a group of four Canadian tourists was on a helicopter sightseeing tour of Hawaii when tragedy struck. According to the NTSB’s report, partway through the tour, the pilot noticed a vibration in the Bell 206’s cabin. As the pilot diverted his flight path to a nearby airport, the vibration stopped and the pilot chose to continue the tour. As the tour resumed, the vibration returned, followed by a grinding sound. A warning came on that the main rotor’s RPM was low. The pilot, realizing the aircraft was going to crash, attempted to land on a nearby grassy shoreline, but because there were people on the shoreline he then tried to land in the water, close to the shore.
“The pilot said that, about 20 ft. above the water, it felt like the main rotor stalled, the helicopter lost lift, and it ‘fell out of the sky’,” the NTSB’s report notes. “The helicopter descended rapidly into the water and sank about 20 ft from the shoreline.”
An air traffic recording captured the pilot warning controllers that he was about to crash. The controllers told him to “check next to the Arizona Memorial,” which the pilot said he would do. The next recording is a report that the helicopter crashed.
At the time of the crash, there were four passengers and a pilot on board. Three of the passengers were able to free themselves from the wreck but the fourth passenger, a 16-year-old named Riley Dobson, could not get free and drowned. Investigators said it was not clear if he lost consciousness in the crash, which caused the drowning, or if he was initially conscious but lost consciousness while trying to free himself. They also noted that it was not clear whether Dobson’s life preserver inflated, but they did find that the preserver was entangled with the seatbelt straps.
First responders found Dobson unresponsive and transported him to a local hospital in critical condition, but he later died of his injuries. The pilot and two other passengers were seriously injured, while another passenger suffered minor injuries.
Helicopter Crash Witnessed by Dozens of Sightseers at USS Arizona Memorial
The crash happened at the USS Arizona memorial in Honolulu, Hawaii, where dozens of sightseers were gathered. When they noticed the helicopter crashing into the water, they ran to help, attempting the free the victim from his seatbelt.
Shawn Winrich told KHON he noticed the helicopter looked to be flying strangely, so he turned to film it.
“But then it started coming really low, and kinda coming straight at me,” Winrich said. “It seemed out of place and not normal.”
Meanwhile, Daniel Rose said the pilot seemed to avoid hitting any witnesses by landing the helicopter in the water.
“If he would have hit on land, there was 100 people standing right there, he would have hurt a lot of people,” Rose said.
In its initial preliminary report, the NTSB wrote that witnesses at the Pacific National Monument reported seeing the helicopter flying low and suddenly descending into the water. The aircraft landed in approximately 40 feet of water, about 20 feet from the shore.
NTSB Cites Improper Maintenance as Cause of Honolulu Helicopter Crash
In its investigation, the NTSB found that the engine-to-transmission drive shaft separated at the transmission side and the forward coupling was not lubricated. That lack of lubrication could have caused overheating, which likely caused the driveshaft to fail.
Among the NTSB’s findings:
- The helicopter underwent maintenance shortly before the crash, but that maintenance was not recorded in the helicopter’s log;
- The helicopter’s forward coupling likely did not receive grease, which the maintenance manual said should be applied;
- The helicopter’s owner was not present during the entire maintenance procedure; and
- The helicopter had several overdue component inspections that were not carried out.
As a result, the NTSB found that improper helicopter maintenance resulted in the drive shaft failing while the helicopter was in flight. Furthermore, the NTSB found that increased inspections might have uncovered issues with the helicopter, which could have prevented the crash.
Tour Company Genesis Helicopters had No Previous Accidents
The pilot, Ryan Rohner, is a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot with the Hawaii Army National Guard. The Bell 206B was operated by Genesis Helicopters, which was not involved in any other accidents. The Bell helicopter is designed to fit up to five people and does not have doors to allow for better photo opportunities. However, Bell helicopters have been involved in a series of lawsuits resulting from crashes in the past.