‘The impact must have been mean’

Man describes seeing what might be crash of a missing helicopter last night off Molokai

An MH-65 Dolphin helicopter aircrew from Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point conducts an aerial search for a missing helicopter with two people aboard on Tuesday. U.S. Coast Guard photo

An MH-65 Dolphin helicopter aircrew from Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point conducts an aerial search for a missing helicopter with two people aboard on Tuesday. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Molokai resident Tim Emmanuel didn’t want to “think the worst” when he saw a red blinking light plummet from the sky Monday night northwest of Molokai.

“The way the speed the light was coming down, I no like think the worst. The impact must have been mean,” Emmanuel said, describing what may have been a Robinson R44 helicopter that lost communications with the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport control tower at 7:26 p.m. Monday.

Two people were aboard the privately owned, four-seat helicopter. They were heading back to Honolulu after a day trip to Molokai, the U.S. Coast Guard said. The Federal Aviation Administration reported that the helicopter’s last recorded position was off the coast of Molokai.

The Coast Guard, Navy and Maui Fire Department crews conducted air, land and sea searches Tuesday. Some helicopter debris was found, although not confirmed as being from the missing chopper.

Emmanuel was fishing at Moomomi Bay when he saw “the light falling from the sky,” almost straight down into the water around the time the incident was reported. Because it was dark and windy and rainy and the water was choppy, he could not pinpoint where the red light fell into the ocean.

Search patterns of air, land and sea units looking for a missing helicopter off the northwest side of Molokai on Tuesday are shown in this graphic. There were two people aboard the private helicopter, which was headed back to Oahu. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Search patterns of air, land and sea units looking for a missing helicopter off the northwest side of Molokai on Tuesday are shown in this graphic. There were two people aboard the private helicopter, which was headed back to Oahu. U.S. Coast Guard photo

He also heard no impact.

Several minutes later, he saw a helicopter hover in the same area. Then, into the night and early Tuesday morning, he observed aircraft with spotlights.

The Coast Guard reported that an HC-130 Hercules airplane and an MH-60R Navy Seahawk helicopter of the Maritime Strike Squadron 37 were conducting training when the call came in and were sent to the area.

At first, Emmanuel wasn’t sure what he saw.

“I was like, probably it was a drone. Usually get drone flying around,” said the Hoolehua resident, adding that he still thought what he observed was weird. His cellphone reception was spotty, and he could not get in touch with others to find out if something had happened.

He found out about the missing helicopter Tuesday morning. He went to the Hoolehua Fire Station to report what he saw as rescue crews were heading out to search for the aircraft.

An official with knowledge of the incident but without authorization to release specific information confirmed that the helicopter’s tail number is N820DF. FAA records show that the aircraft is owned by Stasys Aviation Leasing LLC. in Washington state.

Oahu news outlets reported that the helicopter was operated by Mauna Loa Helicopters.

Company officials told Honolulu television news station Hawaii News Now that the helicopter carried a student pilot and an instructor. The student had moved to Hawaii about a year ago and was nearing completion of a professional program. The teacher was the most experienced pilot with Mauna Loa Helicopters with at least two years with the company.

A message left at Mauna Loa Helicopters offices on Oahu was not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon. Officials at a Kona office could not be reached Tuesday evening.

Maui County Fire Services Chief Ed Taomoto said that at 8:25 a.m. Tuesday, the Maui Fire Department’s Air One helicopter found an uninflated life vest 100 yards from shore in the area of Ilio Point on the the northwest tip of Molokai. Fire crews handed the vest to Maui police who relayed information to the Coast Guard in Honolulu to see if the vest came from the helicopter. There was no word if it was Tuesday.

Air crews from the Navy and Coast Guard located debris along with ChemLights in the water Monday night approximately one and a half miles off shore. It had not been determined if the debris came from the missing helicopter, the Coast Guard said.

Also responding to the incident was a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point; Coast Guard Cutter Ahi, an 87-foot patrol boat; and Coast Guard Cutter Galveston Island, a 110-foot patrol boat, both based in Honolulu.

Conditions reported in the search area Tuesday afternoon included 25-mph winds out of the east-northeast with 15-foot seas.

Taomoto said the Hoolehua fire crew Tuesday conducted a shoreline search from Moomomi Beach to the sea cliffs to the west. Later in the day, firefighters conducted a shoreline search from Ilio Point back toward the sea cliffs to the east.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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