The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a preliminary report on the fatal March 11, 2018 helicopter crash in New York that killed five passengers on board. The report includes an interview with the pilot, the sole survivor.
The passengers had chartered an aerial tour of city landmarks for a photo shoot. During the trip, two of them removed their seat belts to take pictures, but remained attached to their harnesses, according to the pilot. However, at one point the pilot did have to ask one passenger to reattach his harness. A short time later, that same passenger slid across the seat toward the pilot, so he could extend his feet and take a picture of them outside the helicopter. Then, the catastrophic events began to unfold.
During the interview, the pilot said that as he initiated a turn, the nose of the helicopter began to rotate faster than he expected. When the engine and fuel pressure warning lights illuminated, the pilot thought he was experiencing engine failure. As the helicopter descended, he tried to restart the engine, but couldn’t. Reaching down for the emergency fuel shutoff lever, the pilot found it was in the off position. That’s when he saw a portion of the front seat passenger's restraint tether underneath the lever, raising the possibility that the tether inadvertently tripped the aircraft's emergency fuel cutoff switch, causing engine failure. After attempting unsuccessfully to restart the engine, the pilot said he glided the craft toward the river rather than attempt to land in Central Park.
By the time rescuers arrived, the helicopter was submerged upside down in the frigid water; the passengers were trapped inside. While the pilot was able to free himself from his harness, investigators said that the passengers died because their harnesses couldn’t release or be removed quickly enough. Emergency responders had to cut loose the harnesses to free the passengers. Two of them were pronounced dead at the scene, while the other three were declared dead at the hospital.
Considering the fatal crash, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued an order suspending "doors off" flights involving restraints that cannot be released quickly in an emergency situation. While a harness might seem safer, they also can prove harder to escape in an emergency. Meanwhile, US Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY) has called on the FAA to suspend the operating certificate of Liberty Helicopters, which provided the aircraft that crashed, until the company's safety record and the cause of the accident are fully assessed. Thus far, the FAA has reported this crash to be the deadliest yet involving a national door-off helicopter tour, in addition to being Liberty Helicopters’ third crash in the past 11 years.
A full investigation could take a year or longer. Investigators will be inspecting the helicopter, as well as the harnesses, emergency float system, pilot’s experience, and weather conditions.
Are helicopter sightseeing tours safe?
Helicopter tours have become increasingly popular for stunning views and brag-worthy experiences. For the most part, considering the many hours logged and as many people that board a sightseeing plane, these tours are a safe. However, critics argue that full flight schedules and increasing competition often lead to cutting corners when it comes to maintenance and inspections. Additionally, there is no requirements to specifically instruct passengers on escaping harnesses during an emergency. Some say it is nearly impossible for a non-trained passenger to escape. Also, with so much competition, companies are charging lower rates for a tour and likely making up costs by hiring less-experienced pilots.
No one wants to think about the possibility of a crash, but it’s better to know what to do in the case of an emergency than to be unprepared. Before choosing a helicopter tour company, here are some safety matters to consider.
Look for a company that advertises that they are FAA Part 135 certified. This means the company must adhere to higher standards, such as more training for pilots.
Research the tour’s reputation and safety ratings; read customer reviews.
Know the level of instruction offered to passengers on escaping safety harnesses.
Listen to the airplane safety spiel because if something goes wrong, you need to know the drill.
Keep an eye on weather reports on the days leading up to your flight. Know company policies for postponing or cancelling tour.
While you can never receive 100% assurance of a safe flight, selecting a tour based on a good reputation, certification, high safety ratings, and excellent customer reviews, should nearly guarantee you a safe and exciting aerial tour of your destination.