NYC Helicopter Ride Sparked Safety Concern Months Before Fatal Crash

By Alan Levin | December 11, 2019

A government safety inspector who saw a popular New York City, doors-off sightseeing helicopter flight operation six months before a fatal 2018 crash called it “unorthodox,” but officials thought they had no authority to regulate it and allowed it to continue, an investigation has found.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday concluded the Federal Aviation Administration’s lack of oversight contributed to the cause of the March 11, 2018, crash in the East River that killed five. The NTSB also voted to call on the FAA to ban such open-door flights for hire until it adopts stricter standards on the use of the special harnesses passengers wear.

The Airbus SE AS350 copter went down after a tether attached to one of the passenger harnesses accidentally looped around a fuel shutoff lever and cut power, the NTSB concluded.

All of the people who paid for a flight that permits them to dangle their feet outside a chopper and take pictures died after their craft ditched into the water and flipped upside down. They couldn’t escape from their harnesses, according to the NTSB. Only the pilot was able to free himself.

The operation had multiple safety issues, the NTSB investigation found. The craft sank after the pilot could only inflate one of two emergency floats because the handle was so difficult to operate, according to NTSB.

Officials at the company that sold the tickets, FlyNYON, and Liberty Helicopters Inc., which operated the flights, “intentionally exploited” a loophole allowing the flights billed as for photography to sidestep safety regulations for commercial operations, said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.

Employees were instructed not to describe the flights as sightseeing and to keep a watch for FAA inspectors, he said.

The FAA is reviewing the NTSB recommendations and will respond within 90 days, according to an emailed statement from the agency. Since the accident, the agency imposed new restrictions on doors-off flights and began the process of writing new regulations for that segment of the industry, it said.

FlyNYON highlighted, in an emailed statement, issues the NTSB identified with the emergency floats and the design of the fuel shut-off valve. “We support the recommendations of the NTSB to the FAA to evaluate and to address these significant safety issues,” the company said.

Liberty isn’t able to comment as a result of litigation related to the crash, said company spokesman Jerry Eisenband.

Harnesses worn by passengers on the flight — which could only allow them to escape if they took a knife and cut a tether behind their backs — “turned a perfectly good helicopter into a death trap,” Sumwalt said at the meeting in Washington. “That is a fact.”

An FAA inspector who viewed the doors-off operation in October 2017 raised concerns, but others at the agency believed they had no authority to stop it, according to the investigation.

At the same time, pilots at Liberty repeatedly questioned safety of the operation but were ignored by FlyNYON and their own management, according to NTSB.

The NTSB only has the power to recommend, not regulate. It urged the FAA, which regulates the aviation industry, to ban such flights until it sets stricter rules.

The NTSB received three different opinions from FAA on the legality of such flights, which are widespread at major cities and some tourist locations.

In one legal opinion, the agency concluded that open-door flights for photography should be reserved only for people who are professional photographers, which would have prohibited the FlyNYON operation.

However, the agency concluded after the crash that such flights can continue so long as companies receive a special authorization. FlyNYON and other similar companies operate as if they are a private flights with limited regulation in spite of taking compensation. They aren’t required to adhere to stricter commercial standards, the NTSB found.

“This is a loophole that one could fly a helicopter or drive a truck through,” NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Lansberg said at the hearing.

The safety board recommended that the FAA close the exemption.

About the photo: In this March 12, 2018 file photo, a helicopter is hoisted by crane from the East River onto a barge in New York after a Sunday night crash. The crash is prompting regulators to temporarily ground “doors off” flights using tight restraints that could trap people in an emergency. Five people were killed. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

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