Report: Doors-Off Helicopter Tours Prized Photo Ops Over Customer Safety
Turns out, those no-doors, dangle-your-feet-over-NYC-for-maximally-impressive-content- helicopter experiences may be pretty unsafe — by design. According to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board, one undertaken in the wake of the deadly East River chopper crash, local tour companies allegedly exploited a loophole in FAA regulations in order to operate unhampered by the agency’s restrictions.
In March 2018, a helicopter operated by Liberty Helicopters for FlyNYON tours plummeted into the water and capsized. Only the pilot made it out: The five passengers were unable to unhook the straps designed to keep them inside the helicopter’s open doors as they snapped photos. Transcripts released in the course of the subsequent NTSB inquest quote the pilot, Richard Vance, as telling the tour group: “Leave your seatbelts on the whole flight. You’re tethered in. You’re not goin’ anywhere.”
According to the NTSB’s report, published Tuesday, NYONair developed a “harness/tether system” for passengers to wear during their rides; a system that basically involved strapping customers into the vehicles with the same kind of fall-protection harnesses worn by window washers, in addition to FAA safety harnesses. These were latched to tethers, and then to the chopper, with locking carabiners; they were also prohibitively difficult to remove in the event of a crash, the NTSB found.
On top of all that, the harness systems had the potential to interfere with the control panel, which is exactly what happened in May 2018: the passenger riding upfront leaned backwards and forwards in his seat, such that his safety harness dangled on the chopper’s floor, tangling in the safety controls mounted there. His harness appears to have pulled the fuel shutoff lever, cutting power to the engine and causing the helicopter too plummet. The pilot activated its emergency floatation system in preparation for a splash landing, but the buoys didn’t fully inflate. The pilot — wearing only an FAA-approved restraint — was able to free himself and ditch the downed chopper, but the passengers were trapped in their special-issue safety rigs, and drowned.
Had the company billed itself as a commercial tour operator, the NTSB contends, the FAA may have inspected these harnesses more closely. “Federal regulations do not define the terms ‘aerial work’ and ‘aerial photography’ to include only business-like, work-related aerial operations,” the report explains. “Both Liberty and NYONair demonstrated deliberate efforts to operate the FlyNYON revenue passenger-carrying flights under Part 91 as aerial photography flights and to avoid any indication that the flights may be commercial air tours, which would be subject to additional FAA requirements and oversight that did not apply to aerial photography flights.”
In so doing, NTSB co-chairman Bruce Landsberg said at a public hearing Tuesday, the companies “exploited” an FAA “loophole one could fly a helicopter or a truck through.”
For its part, the FAA does not appear blameless, having failed to do their due diligence in examining the service’s operations. “I went to FlyNYON’s website,” Landsberg reportedly said. “They said since inception in 2012 they have flown over 250,000 passengers and now offer flights in Miami [and] Los Angeles. That doesn’t sound like aerial work…and the FAA had difficulty understanding this?”
The NTSB recommended that the companies suspend their doors-off passenger flights, but the NY Post reports that FlyNYON continues to operate its tours, explaining in a statement that the harnesses were not to blame. “If the emergency flotation system had operated as designed and certified, any issues with the harness and tether system are immaterial,” a spokesperson told the outlet.
FlyNYON had not responded to Gothamist’s request for comment at time of publication, but a spokesperson for Liberty Helicopters declined to comment “because these matters are the subject of active litigation .”