The tragic news coming out of Kauai, Hawaii surrounding the disappearance and subsequent crash site location of a Safari Helicopters aircraft hits close to home. Back in September on a cruise around the Hawaiian Islands I booked a flight with Safari Helicopters. The idea of flying through the mountains and getting a look a the famous “Jurassic Park” waterfall is what drew us to the activity. Safari Helicopters was not an excursion we could have booked through our cruise line, but rather a tour operator I found and researched on my own.
I’ve been in a helicopter once before, and although I don’t have a fear of flying (how could I having been a flight attendant for 10 years?), flying in a chopper is a different experience. Your feeling of weightlessness is different than on board an airplane. The barrier between you and the outside is thinner than that of an airplane and the aircraft movement is felt more than a turn or decent you’d experience in an airplane. KHNL reports that this past weeks fatal accident is the third this year on Hawaii, it is however, the first ever for Safari Helicopters in their 30 year history. Their website also clearly states their safety standards.. others do not. That being said, I did quite a bit of research before selecting a flight with any tour operator for my trip. I checked reviews, safety records and news reports. The only company that routinely had the best reviews and a lack of safety violations or incidents was Safari. So, on Thursday, September 19, 2019 we checked into Safari’s offices for our flight with Captain Paul Matero, who also happened to be the company’s Chief Pilot.
Upon check in at the Safari Helicopter office we were immediately weighed for weight and balance purposes. They double checked the weight we had given them over the phone when we made our reservation. Based on our weight, we were assigned seats in the aircraft. Before getting in the van to the airport we received a safety demonstration much like you’d receive on an airplane. We were instructed how to operate the seat belts, how to wear and activate a life vest should there be a water landing, we were also told how to operate the helicopters communications system to talk with the pilot.
On our ride to the airport we were informed that there was a chance our flight would be cancelled due to weather. It’s not uncommon for the weather to change drastically in a short period of time on the Islands, and we all understood from the time of booking that it was always a possibility. Did I ever think, for a moment, that we would take off if it was unsafe? No.
We watched Captain Paul Matero land with the tourists on the flight ahead of us. They exited the helicopter and took photos in front of it, then they walked over to the waiting area where we were seated and handed over their life vests for us to don. We lined up, by number, as we waited to be called to the helicopter for boarding. The staff on the ground sat each passenger in the helicopter, one by one and personally buckled us in. Their work was then double checked by a second employee. We were also shown the communications system in person, and it’s operation.
Once the door was closed we received a welcome briefing from Captain Paul. He detailed his 12 year history with the company and his knowledge of the Island. He also wanted it to be known that we were always welcome to talk on the communications system but a few times during the flight he’d ask that we remain off the line as he’d be talking to the tower for take-off and landing, but also at various points communicating with the other helicopters in the area to check on weather conditions. Captain Paul was knowledgeable, entertaining, and a great pilot and tour guide.
Once we took off it was quickly evident why helicopter tours around the Island were so popular. The views and landscape are unlike anything you can see elsewhere around the world. At one point we entered a foggy area and rain began to fall. Captain Paul asked us to remain off the communication system for a moment because he wanted to check with a helicopter ahead of us about the ride toward our next scenic location. Due to the conditions, and the ride the chopper ahead of us experienced, Captain Paul made the decision to fly a different path to our next location. Never once did he think to risk it, or allude to “giving it a shot.” The thought never crossed his mind.
Captain Paul was soft spoken but you never once assumed he was inexperienced or would cut corners. He checked in with us periodically to ensure we were all doing okay and enjoying the trip.
Once we landed back at Lihue Airport, Captain Paul thanked us for joining him and readied for his next flight.
The media is contentiously reporting that these operators (not just Safari) are unsafe. That’s simply not true. It is true that they’re not held to the same standards as a passenger commercial aircraft, but then again, chartered aircraft have different standards than commercial flights as well. Any review or article you will find about Safari will state that they were the safest stating until this incident, they had a clean safety record.
I have not been paid to post this. Further, I did not receive my flights with Safari for free. But, like the rest of you, I’m curious to see the findings of the NTSB and the local authorities regarding the factors that led to this sad accident. Based on my experience, I would caution everyone from jumping to conclusions and immediately claim that the pilot showed a lack of judgement or that the company was unsafe. At no point during my trip with the company or in an aircraft under Captain Paul’s direction did I ever feel I was placed in an unsafe situation. You also shouldn’t let this accident deter you from touring via helicopter. Did previous airline accidents anywhere in the world involving a Boeing or an Airbus stop you from ever getting on a plane again? Or has a previous accident with a given airline prompted you to no longer book with that airline? No.
It’s tragic when these accidents occur, and it’s a shaky “it could have been me” experience learning that the helicopter and pilot you just flew with two months ago has crashed but it won’t stop me from doing my own research and booking a helicopter tour again in the future.
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