LIHUE — A prior fuel problem is being pinpointed as the cause of last month’s small aircraft crash near Polihale Beach that killed Kauai pilot Gerry Charlebois and his student passenger.
“The accident pilot had recently had problems with the fuel system suctioning the fuel supply out of the main vent line (located in the belly of the aircraft),” states a preliminary investigation report released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
In an effort to fix the issue, Charlebois reportedly routed the fuel vent line up through the aircraft’s mast.
The NTSB report came nearly three weeks after the March 11 fatal crash and offers the first glimpse into what may have gone wrong for the veteran Kauai pilot and owner of the Birds in Paradise motorized hang gliding company.
Also killed in the crash was 53-year-old Ontario, Canada resident Mark McKenzie.
A second unnamed Birds in Paradise certified flight instructor was giving instruction in another ultralight trike near Charlebois at the time of the accident, according to the report. About 6:15 a.m. on the morning of the crash, the unnamed pilot met with Charlebois at the company’s facility at Port Allen Airport.
“They began to take their respective trikes out of the hangar and he noticed the accident pilot was on a ladder routing compressed air into the accident trike’s fuel vent,” the report states. “The second pilot commented to the accident pilot that the fuel cap was still affixed on the tank and removed it for him, which produced a ‘pop’ sound from the compressed air escaping the system.”
The two pilots departed from Port Allen about 8:50 a.m. As the unnamed pilot was approaching the northwest side of Polihale Beach, he descended to about 600 feet above the ground and observed Charlebois’ trike about 1,000 feet above the ground and 75 feet away horizontally at his 1 o’clock position, according to the report.
“That was the last time he saw the accident trike flying,” the report states. “The CFI and his student performed two near-360 degree turns over the ocean and attempted to contact the accident pilot over the radio. They noticed smoke on the base of the ridgeline and maneuvered over the area.”
The aircraft crashed into a mountainside in Waiakamoo Valley, about one mile east of Polihale State Park.
While the main wreckage was consumed by fire, all major structural components were located within the debris, according to the report. Both the wreckage and an on-board camera were recovered for further investigation.
An ultra-light aircraft registered to Birds in Paradise was also involved in a crash on Aug. 1, 2009, about 12 miles northwest of Lihue, according to NTSB reports. Both the flight instructor and his student, according to those reports, sustained serious injuries in that accident.
A celebration of Charlebois’ life is being planned for April 13.
• Chris D’Angelo, environmental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.