Mourning Tennesseans Left with Questions About Tourist Attraction Safety After Pigeon Forge Helicopter Crash Kills Five

The sightseeing helicopter tour crash that took five lives on Monday afternoon in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee has been on everyone’s mind.  Tuesday night, police released the names of the five young victims who were tragically killed.  Passengers, Johna Morvant, 49, and her two children, Peyton, 22, and Parker Rasmussen, 18, were also on board along with 21-year-old Michael Mastalez, and helicopter tour pilot, 38-year-old Jason Dahl.

The Bell 206 aircraft went down near Rainbow Road in the Great Smoky Mountains, less than a mile from a popular mall and three miles from Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park. According to NBC News, local man, Shawn Matern said he was inside his parents’ house when he heard a loud boom. “That’s when we came out and saw the second explosion right before our eyes,” he said.  He said he saw Dahl, roll out of the burning helicopter on the ground and a neighbor went to try to help.

Pigeon Forge Police stated that there were very little remains left behind.  Officials surveying the the crash site have found marks on the land which indicate that he chopper may have hit the ridgeline then skidded a couple of times before coming to rest right by the river.  It is at that point that the helicopter likely exploded and burst into flames which enveloped it and destroyed much of wreckage which survived the initial crash.

Helicopter Litigation Attorney

Source: WVLT Local 8 News,

The Victims

Father, Scott Rasmussen said the children were visiting their mother in East Tennessee from North Carolina when they all decided to sign up for a helicopter sightseeing tour at Pigeon Forge.  “It’s just really shocking right now that my kids went to go visit their mom and are never coming home,” he told Local8 News.

Mastalez was from Prosper, Texas, but originally from North Carolina where he met his girlfriend Peyton.  The trip to Tennessee was partially taken so Peyton’s mother could meet Mastalez.

Pilot, Jason Dahl’s long-time girlfriend was too grief-stricken to comment but a public Facebook page created to honor him has been flooded with over 80 comments memorializing his life and offering condolences.

Neighbors say helicopter sightseeing companies fly over their house three and four times a day in that area. Tennessee Emergency Management Association confirmed that no one had been injured on the ground and no homes were damaged in the crash.

The Tragedy of Dangerous Tourist Rides

The FAA and NTSB’s investigation of this crash is still underway and may last up to a year.  A cause has yet to be determined.  However, one thing is clear, this is an awful tragedy.  Our hearts and prayers go out to all of the victims and their families.

Perhaps, what we all felt when we first heard about this crash on the Monday evening news was a sense of sadness for all the victims, and next, the feeling that it could have happened to any of us.  Many of us have been on vacations where we look forward to spending a little extra money on entertaining and thrilling attractions like helicopter tours.

At the office on Tuesday, we were all very upset by this close-to-home tragedy but one member of our staff was particular shaken up.  She told me that over the weekend, she had planned to go Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and take a helicopter sightseeing ride to check out the beautiful landscape with her mother who was visiting from Illinois.  However, plans changed last minute and the trip didn’t happen.  She said on Monday night, her and her mom sat pale-faced and gushing with tears glued to the news.  She said, “That could have been anybody.  That could have been us.” And sadly, she may be right.  How many times do we find ourselves watching the news seeing tragedy unfold, thinking that could’ve been me or someone in my family?    

So as I was internally mourning the terrible loss of life in the news these last two days, I began to consider how vital it was to get some information out there to consumers about the dangers of these types of attractions.  If you absolutely must get on one of these charters, it is extremely important to do your homework and choose a company that has a good safety record and is in compliance with state and federal regulations.

Sometimes, in the crowded airspace of the helicopter tourism industry, terrible things happen that are beyond a pilot’s control. reports, “Federal transportation records show there have been 20 fatal helicopter crashes in Tennessee since 1970.” According to crash and incident statistics, the reason for this is that tourist helicopter tour companies are not necessarily providing the most experienced pilots in the cockpit. Some are great, but some are not— it’s a mixed bag at best.  Helicopter tourism is highly competitive and in order to make ends meet these companies have to cut corners and pay their operators less.  Good, quality pilots often look elsewhere if the money is not up to par, leaving the less experienced operators the bulk of these types of jobs.

FAA Oversight

After decades without a change in helicopter operations rules and regulations, in 2014 the FAA did make a move to make helicopter operations safer across the board.  These changes now require helicopter operators to use enhanced procedures for flying in challenging weather, at night, and when landing in remote locations and by 2018, all helicopters must be equipped with flight data monitoring systems.

According to a detailed FAA press release regarding these changes, under the new rule, all Part 135 helicopter operators are required to:

  • Equip their helicopters with radio altimeters.
  • Have occupants wear life preservers and equip helicopters with a 406 MHz Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) when a helicopter is operated beyond power-off glide distance from the shore.
  • Use higher weather minimums when identifying an alternate airport in a flight plan.
  • Require that pilots are tested to handle flat-light, whiteout, and brownout conditions and demonstrate competency in recovery from an inadvertent encounter with instrument meteorological conditions.

In addition, under the new rule, all air ambulance operators are required to:

  • Equip with Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (HTAWS).
  • Equip with a flight data monitoring system within four years.
  • Establish operations control centers if they are certificate holders with 10 or more helicopter air ambulances.
  • Institute pre-flight risk-analysis programs.
  • Ensure their pilots in command hold an instrument rating.
  • Ensure pilots identify and document the highest obstacle along the planned route before departure.
  • Comply with Visual Flight Rules (VFR) weather minimums, Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) operations at airports/heliports without weather reporting, procedures for VFR approaches, and VFR flight planning.
  • Conduct the flight using Part 135 weather requirements and flight crew time limitation and rest requirements when medical personnel are on board.
  • Conduct safety briefings or training for medical personnel.

The Problem with Helicopter Tour Companies

What consumers need to engrain into their thinking prior to stepping aboard these (usually impulsive) amusements, is that there is always a risk of injury or death associated with tourist rides, especially aviation tourist rides (helicopter, air-balloon, small plane, water jet-propulsion rides, etc.).  This risk exists no matter how safe, commercial, professional, or knowledgeable a tourist ride conductor and tourist aviation ride pilots and staff may be or seem.

With the more stringent guidelines set forth above, it certainly is possible to have a reasonably safe helicopter tourism business.  But many pop-up companies dance around FAA regulations to save money and make money.  Just as we’ve heard about the widely publicized issues in the commercial airlines industry:  you have over-worked, under-paid pilots, who have to work in the “unsafe grey area” sometimes in order to make their company’s bottom line every day.  This may include a pilot or helicopter tour company scheduling rides when it’s not safe to fly, ignoring weather cues while in flight, fudging on weight restrictions, not spending time familiarizing pilots with new routes and land topography, spending as little as possible on helicopter maintenance and not investing in continued education training or the necessary industry-wide tools to increase pilot and passenger safety and make rides FAA compliant.

Another problem that underpaying operators can create is a pilot behavior known as “show-boating” or preforming thrilling, but unsafe maneuvers to heighten the passenger experience (flying really close to trees or waterfalls and honoring other unsafe requests like selfies with the pilot while flying). Taking risks like these often result in a larger tip for the pilot.  Which opens another can of worms, helicopter tour companies always have their pilots multi-tasking.  They are not just being expected to give their undivided attention to their duties as a pilot—they are also expected to be the tour guides, narrating the journey and interacting with the passengers.

Scouting for the a Helicopter Tour Company

We are not trying to ruin anyone’s fun.  A helicopter tour can be an amazing and memorable experience.  Just be aware of the risks.  Don’t make an impulsive decision to go with a company because of some low rate they may be offering. Before you go on vacation, research all potential helicopter tour companies and heavily vet them according to licensure, certifications, military experience, hours in flight, training, professionalism, client reviews, helicopter appearance (ensure that the aircrafts look well-maintained and are they routinely serviced) and don’t be afraid to ask questions or look at maintenance logs.  Companies should advertise that they are FAA Part 135 certified which means that they must adhere to higher standards than the general standards.  If this sounds like a lot, just consider the fact that you are literally putting your life in someone else’s hands. 

Helicopter Tour Liability and Tourist Ride Liability

If you have been injured or have had a loved one who was killed due to an amusement ride malfunction or a chartered helicopter crash, contact the personal injury and helicopter litigation attorneys at the Rocky McElhaney Law Firm.  We have the experience, the resources, and the passion for helping people get the justice they deserve.  Through a comprehensive investigation, we can help determine liability in cases where things like negligence, poor training, or poorly maintained equipment may have been responsible for injury and hold the appropriate parties accountable for legal damages.

If you have questions, our door is always open.  Consultations are always free and there are no fees until you recover.  Call the Rocky McElhaney Law Firm today.  (615) 425-2500