These days losing a smartphone can be devastating, but dropping one during a helicopter tour could prove catastrophic, passengers learned during a November trip over scenic Kauai, Hawaii.
Fortunately, no was injured on Nov. 11 when a passenger flying in a Robinson R44 over the island stuck her phone outside the cabin of the aircraft. Airflow from the rotors and traveling at 100 knots tore the phone from her hand and sent it hurtling into the tail rotor, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report released June 11.
The R44, owned by Hawaii Pacific Aviation, took off from the Lihue Airport around 1 p.m. on November 11, 2018, with the pilot and two passengers on board.
By the NTSB's account, it was a lovely day for taking photos of the scene below. Flying under visual conditions with no turbulence and lowest clouds at 5,500 feet, visibility was 10 miles. It was 80 degrees and broad daylight.
Before the flight began, the pilot briefed both passengers and advised them to place their smartphones in cases with lanyard straps. He provided the cases and attached the cases to the passengers’ wrists, according to the pilot’s account in the NTSB report.
“On entry to Hanapepe Valley, at approximately 100kts, the passenger on the right side of the aircraft extended her cell phone into the airflow,” the pilot recounted. “The cell phone and the case, minus the strap, departed the aircraft and impacted the tail rotor. I assessed the flight condition of the helicopter and landed at the nearest appropriate landing site.”
“On assessing the damage, it was clear the tail rotor was unairworthy,” he added. “I contacted my base, organized a passenger pickup and sent details to the mechanics. The helicopter received a tail rotor swap in the field and was returned to the base … the following day.”
Photos show the helicopter sustained substantial damage to one of the two tail rotor blades. The pilot reported that there were no pre-accident mechanical failures or malfunctions with the helicopter that would have precluded normal operation.
NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be “The passenger’s improper decision to hold her cell phone outside the helicopter, which resulted in it departing the helicopter and striking the tail rotor.”
As a result of the incident, the aircraft operator said "an uprated case structure for the passengers may have prevented this occurence." The company is seeking advice from other "doors-off" operators about how to address the issue, according to the NTSB report.