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Report: Pilot disoriented when he crashed in poor weather

NTSB releases final report of helicopter crash on Molokai

The pilot’s decision to continue visual flight instead of reverting to the helicopter’s instruments on a rainy and windy night led to the fatal Nov. 15, 2016, crash into the slopes near Pukoo on Molokai’s east end, according the National Transportation Safety Board.

Honolulu attorney Gary Galiher and Realtor Keiko Kuroki were flying to Galiher’s home on Molokai that night when the helicopter crashed about three quarters of a mile upslope from Galiher’s helipad.

Federal investigators, who previously found no evidence of malfunction in the helicopter, said in a final report released earlier this month that the pilot likely became disoriented of his surroundings before the helicopter crashed.

Galiher, 70, was a longtime personal injury lawyer who got his airline transport pilot certificate in 2009 and had about 4,210.7 hours of total flight experience at the time of the crash. His personal assistant said he flew to Molokai about every other week, often after work at night.

On the evening of the crash, Galiher’s mechanic advised him not to go, “but the pilot insisted on flying because he had to tend to business,” the report said. At about 5:30 p.m., the mechanic had texted the property caretaker on Molokai to check on the weather. The caretaker reported that the “mountain is a little wet and the clouds are low out east near the house.” But by that time, Galiher’s turbine-powered Hughes 369D helicopter had already left. No flight plan was filed.

Galiher and Kuroki departed Honolulu at 5:56 p.m. The sun had set 10 minutes earlier, and weather at the time included scattered clouds and visibility between 3 to 5 miles with rain showers. An advisory at the time warned that the mountains might be obscured, and archived radar data would later show that between 6:34 and 6:45 p.m., a line of rain showers moved from east to west over the accident site.

A search of official weather briefing sources indicated that Galiher did not request an official weather briefing, according to the report. Galiher’s mechanic said that the pilot normally checked the Molokai radar images on the National Weather Service website before flying to Pukoo.

At 6:23 p.m., Galiher reported “2 miles southwest of the mudflats 1 mile off shore at 700 feet transition to the east,” according to archived Federal Aviation Administration voice communications from Molokai air traffic control tower at the Hoolehua airport. His last reported position was about 20 miles from the destination.

Shortly after, witnesses on the east end spotted the helicopter’s searchlight in the dark. One witness who lived 1.2 miles southwest of the helipad saw the helicopter fly from the coastline to the mountain ridge and perform an approach toward the helipad, but it went into a cloud and the witness lost sight.

Others commented on how low the helicopter seemed to be flying and how bad the weather was — dark, rainy and windy. One witness said she recognized the helicopter because she often saw it fly over her property. She’d seen the pilot fly in “horrific conditions” before. At 6:36 p.m., she snapped a photo with her iPhone that showed the helicopter flying in the dark.

Another witness saw the helicopter perform a controlled approach to the ridgeline above her house, not the ridgeline to the west where the helipad was, before descending behind terrain and disappearing from view. Sometime after that, she saw a bright orange light in the clouds.

Investigators put the time of the crash at 6:41 p.m.

That night, Galiher’s mechanic tried to call him but couldn’t get through. Early the next morning, he asked the caretaker to check the residence, but Galiher wasn’t there. The U.S. Coast Guard and Maui Police Department launched a search of land and sea, while the FAA issued an alert. At about 1:31 p.m. that day, the crew of a Maui fire-and-rescue helicopter spotted the wreckage about three quarters of a mile north of the helipad.

The helicopter was destroyed in the crash and resulting fire. Examination of the wreckage revealed no evidence of any pre-impact failures or malfunctions with the helicopter. The damage was “consistent with power-on main rotor blade impact damage,” the report said.

According to the report, Galiher’s last FAA medical examination was a few months earlier on May 17, 2016. The third-class medical certificate he received came with the limitation to have available glasses for near vision. A family member said that Galiher was in excellent health. A forensic toxicology after the crash showed no trace of drugs in his system.

In addition to his airline transport pilot certificate with a rotorcraft-helicopter rating, Galiher held a commercial pilot certificate with airplane multiengine land and instrument airplane ratings. He also had a private pilot certificate with an airplane single-engine land and sea rating.

Galiher’s logbook was not located, so his instrument and night flight experience, as well as number of hours in the type of helicopter that crashed, could not be determined.

As for the helicopter, it was last built in 1979, and its last annual inspection took place on Sept. 17, 2016.

Investigators concluded that the probable cause of the crash was “the pilot’s decision to continue visual flight into an area of instrumental meteorological conditions at night in rain.”

“Given the weather conditions and witness observations, the pilot encountered dark instrument meteorological conditions and rain while flying in an area of rising terrain as he likely searched for the helipad at his residence, which was outfitted with various lights that would have been difficult to see in reduced visibility,” the report said. “The pilot did not have the visual cues necessary to maintain clearance above the ground, resulting in geographic disorientation, which subsequently led to controlled flight into terrain.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.