Witness says parts falling off copter as it went down

A day before he lost his life doing what he loved, Blue Hawaiian Helicopters pilot Nathan Cline had passed a federal check ride test making him “so excited and proud,” his wife said in a recently released federal report on the accident investigation.

“He was so excited and proud because he did really, really well,” Violeta Cline of Kihei told federal investigators about a week after her 30-year-old husband and four passengers aboard a Blue Hawaiian helicopter crashed near Pukoo, Molokai, on Nov. 10, 2011.

Mrs. Cline told investigators that her husband loved his job, and he always “wanted to do this.”

Witnesses of the crash reported hearing a “woop wooping” sound before seeing the Eurocopter EC130 B4 descending downslope from the mountain ridgeline as fragments of wreckage fell from the helicopter, according to witness reports released by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Witnesses, including other helicopter pilots, reported cloudy and rainy conditions the day of the crash.

An official with the NTSB in Washington, D.C., said Thursday that the investigation into the cause of the crash was ongoing.

Blue Hawaiian Helicopters Chief Executive Officer David Chevalier did not elaborate on the incident in an email Thursday. He confirmed that the investigation was ongoing and said that Walter Paleka was the closest witness to the crash.

The NTSB report said that Paleka, who was about one-third of a mile south of the accident, heard a “woop, woop” noise that was later associated with the main rotor blades. He saw the helicopter descending down the mountainside and to the right.

Parts and pieces were falling off the helicopter, Paleka said. Then, he heard a pop when the main rotor blades “stopped and popped” off the helicopter.

Paleka observed that the cabin area was “on fire, no explosion, just fire.”

About 10 feet above the ground, the helicopter rolled away from Paleka, showing its “belly” before striking the ground, the report said.

Paleka added that the helicopter “went straight down” and was not spinning. He said there was no rain during the accident although it was cloudy back in the valley.

The report does not contain an explanation of what caused the accident but does detail the investigative process. Killed in the crash were Cline; honeymooners and Pittsburgh residents Michael Todd Abel, 25, and Nicole Belivacqua-Abel, 28, who both worked as engineers at Westinghouse Electric Co.; and Toronto couple Stuart Robertson, 50, and Eva Birgitta Wannersjo, 47.

The crash occurred about a half an hour after the helicopter took off from Kahului Airport at 11:44 a.m. At 12:14 p.m., NTSB said, the helicopter collided with a mountain near Pukoo, killing the pilot and his passengers.

All witnesses reported that around the time of the accident there were heavy localized rain showers with strong gusty winds in the area. Several witnesses said that the accident occurred in between rain squalls, and one reported that the crash occurred during a heavy rain squall.

The wreckage debris path was approximately 1,330 feet long, extending west-northwest from the main wreckage, the report said.

Molokai resident Floyd Kapuni said there was “big rain” in the area, and he couldn’t see the mountains. But then his attention was drawn to the helicopter when he heard a “weird tat, tat, tat noise.”

He saw that the back of the helicopter’s engine was cherry red. It looked like the back of a missile, he said.

He saw the “red flash” descend straight down fast, followed by an explosion, the report said.

The pilot of the chopper had recently moved to Maui from Southern California after being hired by Blue Hawaiian Helicopters on July 1, 2011.

At the time of his hire, Cline had no flight time on an EC130 B4, which was the type of helicopter involved in the crash. But he received training on the helicopter and was assigned by the company to fly the helicopter.

While employed with Blue Hawaiian, Cline accrued about 306 flight hours in the EC130 B4 helicopter.

A large part of Cline’s previous helicopter experience was gained as a contract pilot flying Bell 407 and 206B series helicopters for Bristow International Helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the report, officials from Blue Hawaiian described Cline as a “picture perfect” employee and “a natural” pilot.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at