FAA: Helicopter tour company had troubled past

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Rescue crews began the slow, difficult process of recovering bodies and debris Thursday from a remote canyon outside Las Vegas after the crash of a tour helicopter belonging to a company with repeated aviation violations.

Sundance Helicopters of Las Vegas had at least five accidents and was the subject of 10 federal enforcement actions since 1994 before it charted a luxury sunset tour of the Las Vegas Strip and Hoover Dam Wednesday that killed a 31-year-old pilot and his four passengers.

The recovery of bodies and investigation into the wreck has been complicated by the remote crash site — a rugged canyon accessible only by helicopter and four-wheel-drive. The helicopter went down around 5 p.m. in the River Mountains bordering Lake Mead.

Authorities have released no information about the victims’ identities. However, Sundance identified the pilot as Landon Nield, a longtime pilot who was married in a Las Vegas church in June.

“He was a good pilot,” his wife, Gabriela Orozco, 38, told The Associated Press. “He loved what he was doing. His dream was to be a pilot.”

Orozco said her husband had flown for roughly seven years, and was taking tourists along a typical twilight route when the helicopter crashed.

The collision is the latest in a string of tour helicopter wrecks across the country in recent years and comes amid concerns about the safety of the air tour industry. From 1994 through 2008, there were 75 commercial helicopter accidents, excluding air ambulances, resulting in 88 fatalities.

Helicopter-crash trial lawyer Gary Robb said tour pilots are encouraged to push the aircraft’s limits and ignore unpredictable wind gusts that can push the helicopter into a fixed object, such as a mountain.

“There is an incentive for the pilot to provide a ‘flight thrill’ to passengers,” Robb said. “So we have seen instances where they will fly the helicopter 50 to 100 feet next to a glacier, a building or, in this case, perhaps a reservoir. ... It’s deadly.”

The Federal Aviation Administration last year proposed new rules for helicopter operators, including tour guides, which required that operators use onboard technology and equipment to avoid terrain and obstacles.

It’s unclear what might have triggered the Nevada crash. The weather was mostly clear near Lake Mead on Wednesday, with a low temperature around 29 and winds around 5 mph.

Investigators expect to be on the scene three to five days, said Mark Rosekind with the National Transportation Safety Board.

Sundance CEO Larry Pietropaolo noted there was no distress call before the crash. He said the company was turning over pilot and mechanical records to the NTSB and FAA. Flight operations were suspended Thursday.

“We work every day to prevent this from happening,” Pietropaolo told the AP. “We don’t know what happened.”

The company offers daily tours to the Grand Canyon and boasts a 22-helicopter fleet. The aircraft that crashed was an AS350BS, which can hold up to six passengers and is often used for air tours. FAA records show it was built in 1989.

“It’s a very efficient and good helicopter,” Pietropaolo said.

It’s a popular model for Sundance, which had a history of safety citations. The FAA has taken enforcement actions against Sundance Helicopters at least 10 times since 1994. In 1997, the company was ordered to pay a $22,000 fine for violating regulations pertaining to the airworthiness of the aircraft.

NTSB records show Sundance was involved in at least five other accidents since 1997, but only one resulted in fatalities.

In September 2003, a pilot and six passengers were killed when a helicopter slammed into a canyon wall while maneuvering through Descent Canyon, east of the Grand Canyon West Airport. In a 2007 letter that made safety recommendations to air tour operators and the FAA, the NTSB cited unsafe flying procedures and pilot misjudgment as the probable cause.

The company was not punished for the incident because the pilot, not Sundance Helicopters, violated Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

Pietropaolo downplayed the previous accidents and safety violations, saying he would measure Sundance’s accident rate per hours flown against any other company. According to data from the Clark County Department of Aviation, Sundance flew 167,182 passengers during the first 10 months of this year — nearly 17,000 per month.

“Sundance has an excellent safety record relative to the industry and general aviation,” Pietropaolo said.

Nield had no history of accidents or violations, according to the FAA. He and his 13 siblings grew up on farms in Wyoming and Utah, said his sister Angalena Adams.

“We all learned to work hard and love each other and appreciate each other,” Adams said. “He loved everyone. He was an awesome brother and an awesome son.”

Nield was hired by Sundance nearly three years ago. Pietropaolo called him a solid pilot.

“He will be missed,” Pietropaolo said. “He was a very nice, young man.”

Critics argue Sundance’s troubled past is a symbol of the relaxed safety practices enforced by helicopter tour companies nationwide.

Robb, the trial lawyer, said helicopters tours are the most dangerous form of aircraft travel because the pilots are expected to guide the aircraft and entertain passengers. Even something seemingly minor, like an unforeseen bird smashing into the helicopter, could have sent the aircraft tumbling into the mountainside, Robb said.

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, asked the FAA to address public complaints about helicopter safety issues in 2000, but said she never got a response. She renewed her request after helicopter crashes in 2005, 2007, 2009 and in October, when a private aircraft crashed in Manhattan.

“Helicopter traffic is the wild west of aviation,” she wrote to Federal Aviation Administrator Randolph Babbit in October. “Helicopters are subject to much less scrutiny than other types of aircraft.”

Babbit noted there had been an average of one helicopter accident per year in New York since 1983, many with fatalities, according to NTSB reports.

The FAA requires that pilots be certified. Pilots must fly safely but are not restricted to specific altitudes.

“We do random surveillance — both overt and covert — on air tour companies to ensure they’re operating safely,” Gregor said.

But Robb said various tour operations regularly break the rules by, for example, cozying up to a waterfall for a prime view.

Jen Boyer, executive director at Tour Operators Program of Safety, said Sundance Helicopters’ membership has been in good standing with the industry group since 1997. That means it has passed thorough, annual audits, most recently in July.

“We truly believe this is a sector of the helicopter industry that can be done safely,” Boyer said.

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