Feds Call Helicopter That Crashed in NYC River a ‘Death Trap’

The helicopter that crashed in New York City’s East River last year and led to the deaths of five young sightseers on an open-door flight was a “death trap,” according to the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which concluded its investigation into the incident last week. In its preliminary report, the agency tallied up eight safety failures, many of them deliberate choices on the part of the helicopter’s operator, Liberty Helicopters, and the company that chartered the aircraft, FlyNYON.

Though not as enormous in scale as other notable aviation disasters, the accident contributes to an unsettling pattern in government oversight in the transportation world, seen everywhere from Uber’s fatal self-driving car crash in Arizona up through Boeing’s ongoing 737 MAX debacle.

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After investigating the FlyNYON crash for more than 18 months, the NTSB issued 10 recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration that address issues including unsafe harness systems, the use of open-door aircraft for nonprofessionals, the lack of safety management programs at air tour operators, and the presence of an inebriated passenger on the aircraft, who in this case inadvertently precipitated the deadly crash. The board also urged the FAA to close a loophole that allowed the flight to operate under limited regulatory scrutiny, and noted that there are still concerns with FlyNYON’s ongoing operations..

“These types of doors-off flights with dangerous supplemental restraints that could get tangled or caught on something and hamper escape ought to stop before others get hurt,” Robert Sumwalt, the NTSB chair, said at a public hearing on December 11. “These companies were knowingly exploiting a loophole to avoid stronger regulation and oversight, and people died because of it.”

An FAA spokesperson said the agency would release its response to the recommendations within 90 days, as required by regulation. A Liberty Aircraft spokesperson declined comment, citing ongoing litigation, but said that the company no longer offers open-door flights. FlyNYON, which now uses its own helicopters rather than charters, still offers open-door flights. (It did stop allowing dogs on board, though.) FlyNYON didn’t respond to a request for comment on the NTSB’s findings prior to publication. After this article was published, FlyNYON provided a statement focusing on the fuel controls and flotation, and suggesting the harness problem was “immaterial.” The helicopter’s “emergency flotation system did not work as intended due to design problems with the pilot activation handle and the cross-feed tube,” the statement says. “Tragically, the helicopter rolled inverted and the passenger cabin was submerged in extremely cold water in just 11 seconds, when the flotation was designed and certified to keep the helicopter upright, even in the event that one of its two reservoirs tanks did not activate for any reason.” The company declined a subsequent request for comment on whether it had made any safety improvements of its own after the accident.

The photography-oriented sightseeing flight took off from from a New Jersey heliport just before sunset on March 11, 2018, in clear weather. FlyNYON has been offering open-door photo flights for years, benefiting from the growth of Instagram. After flying around the Statue of Liberty and heading up the East River toward Central Park, the Airbus AS350 B2 lost power. The passenger in front, who was inebriated, according to toxicology reports and witness testimony, had been leaning back in his seat to take “shoe selfies“—shots of his feet dangling over the city—which FlyNYON promotes in its marketing materials and on social media. The tail of his harness tether caught onto the floor-mounted fuel cutoff valve, which activated when he sat up.

Without power and not immediately aware of the cause, the pilot executed an emergency descent over the East River and a survivable landing, the NTSB found. But one of the skid-mounted emergency floats that the pilot activated failed to properly inflate, causing the helicopter to pitch in its direction and quickly invert in the water. Because the passengers couldn’t free themselves from tightly anchored harnesses, all five drowned. The pilot escaped, as he was wearing a conventional quick-release harness. The victims were Daniel Thompson, 34; Tristan Hill, 29; Carla Vallejos Blanco, 29; Trevor Cadigan, 26; and Brian McDaniel, 26.

The subsequent investigation by the NTSB found a bounty of safety deficiencies, ranging from the aircraft’s setup to the operational strategies that made the disaster possible. Beyond that, the crash has, according to one NTSB member, implications for the future airborne systems, like electric air taxis that will require the kind of oversight that the FAA appears not to be exhibiting with operators like FlyNYON. (I was a passenger on another FlyNYON flight that evening, and provided testimony to the investigation.)

The board found that the fuel cutoff valve should be protected from inadvertent activation, and recommended a review of the design of the flotation system, as an “installation anomaly” prevented them from being able to fully inflate.

But the safety review focused on how the tethers that kept occupants from falling out of the helicopter also kept them from escaping when they were submerged in the 40-degree water of the East River. The report says the carabiners (which are not approved by the FAA for aviation use) were attached to the back of the passengers’ harnesses, so they couldn’t be easily reached or unlocked by passengers suffering from cold shock and generally unaware of how the tethering mechanisms functioned. Moreover, the knives provided to passengers in case they needed to cut themselves free were “ineffective,” the NTSB found. (The investigation did not find evidence that the passengers attempted to use the knives.)

The investigators also note that FlyNYON pilots had alerted company CEO Patrick Day Jr. to these harness issues in the months leading up to the crash. Day dismissed their concerns and mocked the pilots as “snowflakes,” according to the NTSB, which provided transcripts of FlyNYON staff meetings among nearly 1,200 pages of evidence it released in September. This evidence also includes interviews, wreckage analysis, pathological reports, emails, and a harrowing transcript of the flight, as extracted from a GoPro camera mounted inside the cabin.

The NTSB found that FlyNYON and Liberty “exploited” a regulatory loophole. The rules that allow photo-oriented flights—which typically operate with doors open or removed completely so photographers have free range of movement and aren’t shooting through plexiglass—are meant for professional photographers, who would have extra training and proper harnessing gear. But the definitions of the terms “aerial work” and “aerial photography” don’t explicitly restrict the work to professionals in business operations. The safety report says the companies “demonstrated deliberate efforts … to avoid any indication that the flights may be commercial air tours, which would be subject to additional FAA requirements and oversight. These would have required explicit approval by the FAA for every aspect of the operation, and involved far greater expense and time on the part of FlyNYON.

Just one example: FlyNYON purchased its passenger harnesses from Home Depot—they’re primarily fall-protection harnesses for construction workers—instead of acquiring far pricier aviation-specific harnesses with quick-release mechanisms. The tethers and carabiners were from mountain-climbing gear suppliers, and were incompatible with the knives supplied to cut them in an emergency. If FlyNYON were operating as an air tour operation, the FAA would have inspected and approved the entire restraint system, including the backups and emergency procedures, as well as the maintenance of all those elements.

NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy slammed the FAA for its lax oversight of the two companies, especially since FlyNYON has continued its operations. “There should not be a safety exemption for air tour operators,” she said in an interview after the public hearing, citing several additional recent accidents including a midair collision in Alaska in May involving aircraft carrying passengers from a cruise ship, and the crash of the vintage B-17 bomber in Connecticut in October. “In all these instances people are looking to have fun. They should not be expected to know anything about aviation.”

FlyNYON and Liberty, on the other hand, should. “What’s most important to FlyNYON was their brand, and passenger safety was not their number one concern,” Homendy said. “I was appalled just reading through the interview with the CEO and chief pilot, reading the text exchanges between the companies—there’s just an anti-safety attitude there, and I don’t think they should be operating.”

It’s now up to the FAA to act, or not, on the recommendations of the NTSB, which itself has no regulatory power. The FAA could shut down FlyNYON, boost its oversight, and close the loophole that allows it to operate tourist flights as though they were flying professional photographers.

Looking beyond the particulars of this crash, Homendy says the FAA’s oversight system is broken, and that it could be a problem as autonomous and electric air taxis look to push into service in the coming years. She also drew a comparison to the Department of Transportation’s handling of the autonomous vehicle development, as evidenced in last year’s fatal crash of an Uber autonomous test vehicle in Arizona. (Both the FAA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are DOT organizations.) Meanwhile, the FAA is under fire for its oversight of Boeing’s development of the 737 MAX aircraft, which was grounded this spring after fatal crashes recently. “I don’t have much faith that they [the FAA] will regulate them in a timely manner,” Homendy said. The FAA should be concerned with aviation safety, she says, not shortcutting regulation or promoting innovation. And while FlyNYON’s faults are easy to find, America’s safety regulators must keep an eye on the future.

Updated, 12-20-19, 4:35pm ET: This article has been updated to include a statement from FlyNYON.

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