Helicopter being recovered from the East River on March 12, 2018
|Date||March 11, 2018|
|Site||East River, New York City, US |
|Aircraft type||Eurocopter AS350 Écureuil|
|Flight origin||Helo Kearny Heliport (65NJ)|
|Destination||Helo Kearny Heliport (65NJ)|
On March 11, 2018, a sightseeing helicopter crashed into the East River off the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York City, killing 5 people. Two passengers died at the scene, and three others were pronounced dead at the hospital. The pilot escaped the helicopter following the crash. The aircraft was operated by Liberty Helicopters for FlyNyon. Two people were from New York, another two were from Dallas while one was from Argentina. The pilot was from Connecticut.
The aircraft involved in the incident was a Eurocopter AS350 Écureuil, that was free of any prior accidents. The tour company had had two other crashes in the preceding 11 years. The helicopter flew with open doors, and passengers wore a harness along with a seatbelt, designed to keep them inside the helicopter, which underwent scrutiny as a potential cause of fatality due to the difficulty of releasing the harness.
The helicopter was equipped with restraints for the pilot and each passenger provided by the manufacturer compliant with 14 C.F.R. 27.785c. Passengers were also equipped with a harness system which allowed them to move within the cabin and sit in the door sill while airborne. The harness was an off-the-shelf nylon fall arrest device which anchored each passenger to the helicopter; ground crew were responsible for attaching and detaching a locking carabiner that connected the fall protection lanyard to the back of each passenger's harness at the start and end of each flight. The harnesses were provided by FlyNYON, the vendor which had sold the passenger tickets.
The flight was being conducted by the operator Liberty Helicopters under 14 C.F.R. 91 rules as an air tour for aerial photography for FlyNYON under 14 C.F.R. 136 rules. According to a 2014 study, the crash rate of Part 91 air tours is 3.5 per 100,000 hours flown, "similar to the reported crash rates in categories considered to be 'high hazard' commercial aviation" such as medevac and off-shore drilling transport. Liberty Helicopters spent $120,000 lobbying the mayor's office and the Economic Development Corporation in 2015, according to an article about the curtailment of tourist flights from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport in 2016.
The flight originated from Helo Kearny Heliport (FAA LID: 65NJ) at approximately 1900 EDT on March 11, 2018. The pilot had been flying passengers for FlyNYON on flights lasting 15 to 30 minutes since 1100 that day, although he could not recall how many flights he had completed. When the van carrying the passengers arrived, the pilot checked each passenger's harness and put their life vests on. After seating the passengers in the helicopter, he locked their harness lanyards to the helicopter and provided safety instructions, including where the cutting tool was on their harness and how to use it.
The pilot, following the passengers' requests for sights, flew toward the Statue of Liberty at an altitude ranging from 300–500 ft (91–152 m) above ground level (agl), then proceeded to the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park. After contacting the tower at LaGuardia Airport to request entry into its controlled airspace, the pilot started to climb to approximately 2,000 ft (610 m) agl. During the climb, he noticed the front passenger had removed his restraint, and reminded the passenger to keep the restraint fastened, as the passengers in the left front, left rear, and right rear seats were supposed to stay restrained while the inboard passengers in the center rear seats were allowed to unclip their restraints and sit on the floor with their feet on the skids.
According to several witnesses, at approximately 19:08 Eastern time, the helicopter suddenly descended near the northern end of Roosevelt Island and then plummeted into the river. The helicopter was described to be autorotating at low altitudes immediately prior to its crash. The pilot radioed a mayday call to LaGuardia at 19:08. The pilot stated, in a post-crash interview with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), that a low rotor rpm alarm began to sound and warning lights came on, indicating low engine and fuel pressure. At that point, he believed the engine had failed and considered landing at Central Park, but thought there were too many people present to attempt a landing, and directed the helicopter towards the East River instead.
During the descent, the pilot attempted to restart the engine at least twice, and then he confirmed the fuel flow control lever was still positioned for normal operation. The skid-mounted floats were activated at 800 ft (240 m) agl, and when he reached to engage the emergency fuel shutoff lever in preparation for a hard landing, he realized it had already been activated, and that part of a passenger's fall protection lanyard was underneath the fuel shutoff lever. When he disengaged the fuel shutoff lever, he was able to restart the engine, but at that point, the helicopter had already descended past 300 ft (91 m) agl and the engine "wasn't spooling up fast enough" to avoid a crash landing. He put the helicopter in a nose-up flare before it hit the water. With the doors off, the cabin began to fill with water, first on the pilot's side (right side) of the cabin. The pilot stated he started to unlock the front passenger's carabiner, but had gotten no more than two or three rotations before the helicopter began to sink, rolling past a 45° list. Subsequent review of a video showing the descent (recorded by a witness using a cellphone) led aviation experts to believe the crash would have been survivable had the helicopter not turned over and sunk.
The pilot, who was not attached to the aircraft by an additional harness, unbuckled his standard restraint and escaped. All five passengers drowned after the helicopter rolled over into the water as they were trapped by their harnesses. To leave the aircraft, a passenger would have had to either reach behind them and unscrew the locking carabiner, or use a cutting tool (provided by FlyNYON and attached to each harness) to sever the lanyard. A passing tugboat heard the mayday call from the pilot and tied up to the helicopter to keep it from sinking further. Rescue divers responded seven minutes after the first 911 call. The passengers were cut out of the wreck by emergency responders, some after having being dragged for 50 blocks south in the upside-down helicopter: a 3-knot (5.6 km/h; 3.5 mph) current pulled the helicopter from 86th to 34th during the rescue. The pilot was taken to the hospital for observation.
The NTSB opened an investigation immediately following the incident.
Almost immediately, passengers on previous flights pointed out the "complicated system of straps, carabiners and an emergency blade for cutting [the proprietary eight-point Safety Harness System] off in case of trouble" and inadequate training as probable causes for the passengers' deaths in a March 12 New York Times article about the crash. Several internal documents showed that pilots for Liberty and FlyNYON had requested better-fitting passenger harnesses as well as tools that would make it easier for passengers to free themselves for up to two months preceding the fatal flight. The harnesses used in most flights were yellow nylon harnesses designed as fall protection for construction workers, and the pilots stated they preferred a more expensive blue harness which was more adjustable, had been certified by the FAA for helicopter operations (under technical standard order C167), and had more attachment points, some of which were more accessible to passengers. Patrick Day, CEO of FlyNYON, stated to the New York Times that on October 31, 2017, "inspectors observed the harness and tethering process [at FlyNYON's facility] and continued to permit their use on Liberty and FlyNYON operated flights without issue". A spokesman for the FAA stated that supplemental harnesses are not subject to inspection. FlyNYON staff were instructed to use zip ties to modify the harnesses to fit smaller passengers, and applied masking tape, which FlyNYON called "NYON blue safety tape", to prevent inadvertent release of harnesses and restraints.
Passengers were provided with a hook-shaped seat belt cutter to sever the restraint tether in case of an emergency, but internal testing in November 2017 demonstrated how difficult it was to use that tool on the restraint tethers used in flight, which were made using the ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene branded Dyneema. In February, a pilot for Liberty identified a different knife and tether that could be cut "very easily" as well as a supplier that had more than fifty of each in stock, but social media postings by FlyNYON passengers showed the older tethers and cutters were being flown up to the fatal flight.
Subsequent evaluation of the wreck showed the right-side floats for the emergency flotation system were not as inflated as the left-side floats. The float system must operate flawlessly according to specification and certification. The post-crash examination of N350LH showed the left skid emergency float's pressurized gas cylinder gauge indicated about 0 psi (0 kPa) while the right skid's pressurized gas cylinder gauge indicated about 4,000 psi (28,000 kPa), implying the right side had failed to fully inflate. According to the NTSB report: "The trigger mechanism was smooth with no evidence of binding. Continuity of the float system control was established between the trigger, dual cable block, and the activation cable clevis connection. When the trigger was released, the dual cable block returned to its normal position (via spring within the junction box) but the upper and lower turnbuckles remained in their actuated positions."
FlyNYON is a spinoff of NY On Air (NYONair), which was founded by Patrick Day, Jr. in 2012 to coordinate aerial photography flights for professional and corporate photographers. FlyNYON sold single-seat tickets for aerial photography flights, reducing the per-passenger cost to facilitate access to doors-off photography flights for tourists. FlyNYON marketed its services via social media by encouraging passengers to post pictures with the hashtag #ShoeSelfie, where the photographer's shoes could be seen in an aerial photograph. Day is the son of the director of operations for Liberty Helicopters, Patrick Day Sr. Patrick Sr. simultaneously held the director of operations position for FlyNYON, and Patrick Jr. was listed as the VP of charter and aircraft management for Liberty.
The family of one victim sued FlyNYON and Liberty Helicopters on March 14, alleging that it was impossible for passengers to free themselves from their harnesses during an emergency. The lawsuit was later amended to add Airbus as a defendant. According to NTSB safety recommendations A-10-129 and -130, issued on October 20, 2010, the design of the emergency fuel shutoff lever in the Eurocopter AS350 cockpit "allows for easy access to and inadvertent movement of (the lever), which could cause a serious or catastrophic accident if the movement occurs at a critical point during flight or on the ground." Airbus (then Eurocopter) had previously reviewed the design of the fuel cutoff lever prior to the safety recommendation and developed a new design, but the FAA did not require a retrofit of the new design.
On March 19, NTSB issued Aviation Safety Recommendation ASR-18-02 to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). ASR-18-02 recommends the prohibition of all open-door passenger flights that use additional passenger harness systems, unless the harness system is designed to allow passengers to "rapidly release the harness with minimal difficulty and without having to cut or forcefully remove the harness." The FAA released a statement on March 20 saying they intended to impose a ban on open-door passenger flights that use harnesses which could not be released quickly. Emergency Order of Prohibition FAA-2018-0243 (83 FR 12856) was issued by the FAA on March 23, effective for one year, prohibiting "doors-off" flights with supplemental passenger restraint systems unless those systems have FAA approval through Form 337.
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