Helicopter Trade Group Fought Open-Door Tours for Years

By Alan Levin | March 16, 2018

The leading trade group for helicopter operators has, for at least two years, urged a halt to open-door tours such as the one March 11 that ended in the death of five people in the East River off Manhattan.

The Helicopter Association International, which also represents pilots and others in the industry, has been warning against the growing practice of allowing people to photograph from copters without doors and has refused to certify those operations, Dan Sweet, the group’s spokesman, said in an interview.

“We just believe that helicopter tours should be flown with doors closed,” Sweet said. “HAI wants to create the safest possible flight for the public.”

The five people who died when their helicopter lost power and had to put down in the East River were tethered to the craft by ropes attached to harnesses so they wouldn’t fall out through the open doors. They drowned after the helicopter rolled over and sank. Divers had to cut out the bodies, according to the New York Fire Department.

Investigators haven’t found evidence of mechanical problems with the engine, flight controls or other systems, the National Transportation Safety Board said in an email Thursday.

The pilot radioed “mayday” and said he had lost power shortly before the impact. NTSB investigators have interviewed the pilot, but the agency didn’t release any information about what he said.

The passenger harnesses, which differ from traditional aviation seat belts, attached people from the rear and would have been difficult to remove in an emergency, said Eric Adams, a professional photographer who took a flight by the same company on the same night as the accident. The passengers were given knives to cut the ropes in an emergency, though training on how to use them was limited, Adams wrote in an account for an online publication called The Drive.

The pilot of the flight was the only person who escaped after the Airbus SE AS350B2 hit the water and sank.

Tickets on the flight were sold by FlyNYON and the helicopter was operated by Liberty Helicopters. Attempts to reach the companies for comment have been unsuccessful. A statement on Liberty’s website said it was “fully cooperating” with investigations into the crash.

Doors-off photography flights have grown in popularity as the air-tour industry continually tries to come up with new ways to market itself. Companies in Las Vegas, Hawaii and elsewhere advertise such flights.

The government standards governing their operations can be less stringent than for traditional tour flights, according to a person familiar with the practice. U.S. aviation regulations exempt operations including crop dusting, fire fighting and “aerial photography or survey.”

The helicopter association’s Sweet declined to comment on what may have caused the helicopter to apparently lose power.

The group’s president, Matthew Zuccaro, has made his opposition to doorless flights known in conferences and in industry meetings, Sweet said. He reiterated the position as recently as earlier this month at the group’s Heli-Expo trade show in Las Vegas.

The association certifies the safety of helicopter operators and refuses to give its accreditation to companies that conduct tours with open doors.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the industry, is “giving urgent attention to the use of harnesses specifically for aerial photography flights,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.

“As a matter of overall safety awareness, we are preparing further communications and educational outreach to aerial photography operators and consumers on the use of these harnesses,” the agency said.