A judge has ruled that the federal government wasn't at fault in a 2009 helicopter crash in Hana that occurred while a Federal Aviation Administration air safety inspector was on a check flight with a Sunshine Helicopters pilot.
Ross Scott, president of Sunshine Helicopters, said Thursday that the company would ask U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren to reconsider his April 26 decision. The judge's order followed a four-day nonjury trial in February in U.S. District Court in Honolulu.
"There's so much misinformation that the judge used," Scott said. "I'm very displeased with this judgment."
The crash occurred Dec. 16, 2009, after the Eurocopter AS350 FX helicopter's engine quit in flight and the pilot made an emergency landing on the Waianapanapa shoreline. Pilot Stephen Shull and air safety inspector Donald Andera were injured in the crash, which destroyed the $1.5 million helicopter.
Sunshine Helicopters, United States Aviation Underwriters Inc. and Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. filed lawsuits against the federal government, seeking damages for property and business losses. The plaintiffs alleged Andera caused the engine failure by mishandling the helicopter's fuel control lever, which supplies power to the engine, in an area without a suitable landing spot.
But the judge ruled Andera's conduct wasn't a substantial factor in the cause of the crash. The court also found that the check flight was done in a suitable location.
"We were confident of our legal position," said Ian Gregor, spokesman for the FAA Western-Pacific region.
The day of the crash, Andera was conducting an annual commercial pilot competency check of Shull, with both men described as highly experienced helicopter pilots. The helicopter had left Kahului Airport and was heading toward Hana Airport when Andera initiated a simulated engine failure and lowered the fuel control lever. The maneuver tests the pilot's ability to set up an autorotation and guide the helicopter to a safe landing area in case of an actual engine failure.
While Andera testified he had moved the lever only slightly, the plaintiffs maintained that the air safety inspector had pulled the lever too far.
"He just pulled the throttle back so no fuel went to the engine and then they crashed," Scott said. "That's what our suit was all about. He didn't follow the procedures."
The judge's ruling cited Donald Hamill's testimony as an expert in engine controls. He did a test on the helicopter's fuel control system confirming that the system was "miscalibrated," leading to an "inadvertent engine shutdown" when the lever was moved, according to the court ruling.
But Scott said that the testing was done after government testing in which the engine was "found to be absolutely OK."
Scott said that, immediately after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board had the crated and sealed engine transported to engine manufacturer Honeywell Aerospace's facility in Phoenix. There, representatives of the FAA, NTSB, Honeywell and helicopter manufacturer Eurocopter, as well as companies that overhauled and made a conversion kit for the engine, were present for testing.
The judge's ruling also said Sunshine's failure to investigate prior inadvertent shutdowns contributed to the cause of the crash. The prior shutdowns occurred while the helicopter was on the ground.
Scott said the company did investigate, determining that the shutdowns occurred when pilots weren't watching the Ng gauge, which monitors the speed of the engine, to see that it didn't fall below 80 percent.
"We retrained everybody," Scott said. "We never had an incident after that.
"It was working fine for us. It was working fine when the FAA tested it."
The court found that the simulated engine failure was done in an area where the pilot could perform a safe emergency landing, based in part on photos showing large open fields. But Scott said he flew the route with Shull after the crash, finding trees, overhead wires, rocky terrain and a 5-degree slope. "I can tell you there was no place to land," Scott said.
Andera was hospitalized with a broken ankle.
Shull, who was hospitalized with serious injuries, returned to flying five or six months after the crash but is now on sabbatical, Scott said.
Shull and Andera settled their claims before the trial.
During 26 years in operation throughout the state, Sunshine Helicopters has had five accidents, with no fatalities, Scott said.
"We've hauled over 1 million passengers in Hawaii," he said.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.