Sunday, March 11, 2018

Eurocopter AS 350B2 Ecureuil, N350LH: Fatal accident occurred March 11, 2018 in New York, New York


New York City Helicopter Crash Exposes Deadly Loophole for Aerial Sightseeing 

The five people who signed up for a helicopter sightseeing flight above New York City three years ago might have expected that aviation regulators were looking after their safety.

But the reality of that fatal flight on March 11, 2018, was very different. The operator had declared that it was an “aerial photography” flight that made it exempt from stricter commercial rules.

After the aircraft lost power and splashed down in the East River, all five drowned because they were tethered into the seats with restraints that hadn’t been approved for safety, investigators concluded.

They were among more than 40 people killed since 2016 in air tours and other flights-for-hire that are exempt from commercial aviation safety rules, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said at a meeting Tuesday. The NTSB issued six recommendations for tighter rules over such flights that operate commercially and reiterated three earlier recommendations.

Typically, carrying passengers for hire triggers more government oversight, said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt, “that is, unless you get an exception, an exemption, an omission or an exploitation of a loophole in the regulations.”

The flights include World War II aircraft, hot-air balloons, planes carrying parachutists and some air tours, according to the NTSB.

“I think the public in general would be really surprised by what is required of these operations and not required,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said.

Unlike typical commercial operations, these flights that fall through the regulatory cracks don’t have to have approved maintenance or pilot training programs. There also aren’t rules for drug and alcohol testing or limits on how long a pilot can work each day.

Paid sightseeing trips aboard gliders are treated as if they are lightly regulated private flights because there are no federal regulations governing them, the NTSB said.

In addition to the 2018 helicopter crash, multiple cases illustrate the loopholes, according to NTSB records:

On Oct. 2, 2019, a 75-year-old B-17 bomber crashed in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, killing seven people. Because it was a historic aircraft, the operator had an exemption from the normal Federal Aviation Administration commercial rules and had had little or no contact with agency inspectors in the two years before the crash.

A hot-air balloon crashed near Lockhart, Texas, on July 30, 2016, killing all 16 people aboard in the deadliest U.S. aviation accident since 2009. The pilot had multiple health problems that should have prevented him from flying and had taken prohibited drugs, but balloon pilots are exempt from receiving medical checks most others must get.

A turboprop carrying parachute jumpers slammed into the ground shortly after takeoff from an airport in Mokuleia, Hawaii, on June 21, 2019, killing all 11 people aboard. Even though the parachutists had paid for the flight, it was regulated as if it were being operated by a private pilot.

A pilot and his passenger died on Oct. 21, 2017, in Four Corners, California, after losing control during a “Top Gun” acrobatic demonstration. Normally, such flights would be considered commercial and subject to higher FAA scrutiny, but this one was being operated under an exception for “flight training.”

The FAA, which is charged with regulating the aviation industry and ensuring safety, is crafting new regulations to tighten oversight of balloon pilots and to require more rigorous internal safety organizations for all operators carrying passengers for hire, it said in an emailed statement. After the New York helicopter accident, it also imposed new restrictions on photography flights.

“The FAA has a number of initiatives under way to improve safety” and has worked closely with NTSB on the issue, it said.

The agency has at times faced challenges. A 2018 law setting policy for the FAA required the agency to “streamline” how it approves flights operated by private owners, which includes many of the cases being reviewed by NTSB.

The NTSB is calling on the FAA to take multiple steps to tighten its oversight of companies operating in the less regulated sphere while carrying passengers for hire.

The recommendations call on FAA to identify and close loopholes, develop standards for all operators carrying passengers for hire, give more training and guidance to its safety inspectors and create a database tracking such operations.

Investigators said they don’t want to force small tour operators to shut down or to become regulated as if they were a large commercial airline or charter group. Instead, the FAA should consider creating a new level of regulation appropriate for operations that currently fall through the cracks, said Elliott Simpson, an investigator who led the NTSB review.

The safety board also doesn’t want to add new oversight to flight schools or the thousands of private pilots, Simpson said.

The FAA and other entities receiving recommendations have no legal obligation to follow them, but they must respond and the suggestions often lead to changes.

Aviation Accident Final Report - National Transportation Safety Board

Investigation Docket - National Transportation Safety Board:

The National Transportation Safety Board traveled to the scene of this accident.

Additional Participating Entities: 

Federal Aviation Administration Accident Investigation & Prevention FAA / AVP-100; Washington, District of Columbia
Airbus Helicopters; Grand Prairie, Texas
SAFRAN Helicopter Engines; Grand Prairie, Texas
BEA; Le Bourget, FN
Liberty Helicopters Inc.; Kearny, New Jersey
NYONair; Kearny, New Jersey 
Dart Aerospace; San Diego, California 
Transportation Safety Board of Canada; Ottawa 
Transport Canada; Ottawa 
EuroTec Canada Ltd; Millgrove, Ontario 
European Aviation Safety Agency; Cologne, Germany 

Location: New York, NY
Accident Number: ERA18MA099
Date & Time: 03/11/2018, 1908 EDT
Registration: N350LH
Aircraft Damage: Substantial
Defining Event: Miscellaneous/other
Injuries: 5 Fatal, 1 Minor
Flight Conducted Under: Part 91: General Aviation - Other Work Use - Sightseeing


The Safety Board's full report is available at The Aircraft Accident Report number is NTSB/AAR-19/04.

On March 11, 2018, about 1908 eastern daylight time, an Airbus Helicopters AS350 B2, N350LH, lost engine power during cruise flight, and the pilot performed an autorotative descent and ditching on the East River in New York, New York. The pilot sustained minor injuries, the five passengers drowned, and the helicopter was substantially damaged. The FlyNYON-branded flight was operated by Liberty Helicopters Inc. (Liberty), per a contractual agreement with NYONair; both companies considered the flight to be an aerial photography flight operated under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91. (During this accident investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration determined that Liberty operated the flight as a nonstop commercial air tour under 14 CFR Part 91.) Visual flight rules weather conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the intended 30-minute local flight, which departed from Helo Kearny Heliport, Kearny, New Jersey, about 1850. 

Probable Cause and Findings

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
Liberty Helicopters Inc.'s use of a NYONair-provided passenger harness/tether system, which caught on and activated the floor-mounted engine fuel shutoff lever and resulted in the in-flight loss of engine power and the subsequent ditching. Contributing to this accident were (1) Liberty's and NYONair's deficient safety management, which did not adequately mitigate foreseeable risks associated with the harness/tether system interfering with the floor-mounted controls and hindering passenger egress; (2) Liberty allowing NYONair to influence the operational control of Liberty's FlyNYON flights; and (3) the Federal Aviation Administration's inadequate oversight of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 revenue passenger-carrying operations. Contributing to the severity of the accident were (1) the rapid capsizing of the helicopter due to partial inflation of the emergency flotation system and (2) Liberty and NYONair's use of the harness/tether system that hindered passenger egress.


Flight compartment equipment - Design (Cause)
Fuel selector/shutoff valve - Unintentional use/operation (Cause)
Emergency floatation section - Design (Factor)
Passenger compartment equip - Unnecessary use/operation (Factor)

Organizational issues
Safety - Operator (Factor)
Adherence to safety program - Operator (Factor)
Oversight of operation - Operator (Factor)
Safety - Other institution/organization (Factor)
Availability of safety program - Other institution/organization (Factor)
Oversight of operation - FAA/Regulator (Factor)
Regulatory requirements - FAA/Regulator (Factor)
Adequacy of policy/proc - FAA/Regulator (Factor)

Factual Information 

The Safety Board's full report is available at The Aircraft Accident Report number is NTSB/AAR-19/04.

On March 11, 2018, about 1908 eastern daylight time, an Airbus Helicopters AS350 B2, N350LH, lost engine power during cruise flight, and the pilot performed an autorotative descent and ditching on the East River in New York, New York. The pilot sustained minor injuries, the five passengers drowned, and the helicopter was substantially damaged. The FlyNYON-branded flight was operated by Liberty Helicopters Inc. (Liberty), per a contractual agreement with NYONair; both companies considered the flight to be an aerial photography flight operated under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91. (During this accident investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration determined that Liberty operated the flight as a nonstop commercial air tour under 14 CFR Part 91.) Visual flight rules weather conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the intended 30-minute local flight, which departed from Helo Kearny Heliport, Kearny, New Jersey, about 1850. 

History of Flight

Prior to flight
Miscellaneous/other (Defining event)

Fuel starvation
Loss of engine power (total)

Emergency descent
Attempted remediation/recovery
Off-field or emergency landing

Roll over

After landing

Pilot Information

Certificate: Flight Instructor; Commercial
Age: 33, Male
Airplane Rating(s): None
Seat Occupied: Right
Other Aircraft Rating(s): Helicopter
Restraint Used:
Instrument Rating(s): Helicopter
Second Pilot Present: No
Instructor Rating(s): Helicopter; Instrument Helicopter
Toxicology Performed: Yes
Medical Certification: Class 2 Without Waivers/Limitations
Last FAA Medical Exam: 07/27/2017
Occupational Pilot: Yes
Last Flight Review or Equivalent: 02/21/2018
Flight Time:  (Estimated) 3100 hours (Total, all aircraft), 1430 hours (Total, this make and model), 3020 hours (Pilot In Command, all aircraft), 57 hours (Last 90 days, all aircraft), 33 hours (Last 30 days, all aircraft), 2 hours (Last 24 hours, all aircraft)

Aircraft and Owner/Operator Information

Registration: N350LH
Model/Series: AS350B2
Aircraft Category: Helicopter
Year of Manufacture: 2013
Amateur Built: No
Airworthiness Certificate: Normal
Serial Number: 7654
Landing Gear Type: Emergency Float; High Skid
Seats: 7
Date/Type of Last Inspection: 03/06/2018, 100 Hour
Certified Max Gross Wt.: 4961 lbs
Time Since Last Inspection: 14 Hours
Engines: 1 Turbo Shaft
Airframe Total Time: 5510.2 Hours at time of accident
Engine Manufacturer: Turbomeca
ELT: C126 installed, not activated
Engine Model/Series: Arriel 1D1
Rated Power: 712 hp
Operating Certificate(s) Held: Certificate of Authorization or Waiver (COA); On-demand Air Taxi (135)
Operator Does Business As:
Operator Designator Code: OEMJ

Meteorological Information and Flight Plan

Conditions at Accident Site: Visual Conditions
Condition of Light: Dusk
Observation Facility, Elevation: LGA, 21 ft msl
Distance from Accident Site: 3 Nautical Miles
Observation Time: 1914 EDT
Direction from Accident Site: 88°
Lowest Cloud Condition: Scattered / 250 ft agl
Visibility:  10 Miles
Lowest Ceiling: None
Visibility (RVR):
Wind Speed/Gusts: 7 knots /
Turbulence Type Forecast/Actual: / None
Wind Direction: 330°
Turbulence Severity Forecast/Actual: / N/A
Altimeter Setting: 30.06 inches Hg
Temperature/Dew Point: 7°C / -6°C
Precipitation and Obscuration: No Obscuration; No Precipitation
Departure Point: KEARNY, NJ (65NJ)
Type of Flight Plan Filed: Company VFR
Destination: KEARNY, NJ (65NJ)
Type of Clearance: Traffic Advisory; VFR Flight Following
Departure Time: 1850 EDT
Type of Airspace: Air Traffic Control; Class B 

Wreckage and Impact Information

Crew Injuries: 1 Minor
Aircraft Damage: Substantial
Passenger Injuries: 5 Fatal
Aircraft Fire: None
Ground Injuries: N/A
Aircraft Explosion: None
Total Injuries: 5 Fatal, 1 Minor
Latitude, Longitude: 40.775556, -73.940000

Location: New York, NY
Accident Number: ERA18MA099
Date & Time: 03/11/2018, 1908 EDT
Registration: N350LH
Injuries: 5 Fatal, 1 Minor
Flight Conducted Under: Part 91: General Aviation - Aerial Observation - Sightseeing 

On March 11, 2018, about 1908 eastern daylight time, an American Eurocopter Corp (Airbus Helicopters) AS350B2, N350LH, was substantially damaged when it impacted the East River and subsequently rolled inverted after the pilot reported a loss of engine power near New York, New York. The pilot egressed from the helicopter and sustained minor injuries. The five passengers did not egress and were fatally injured. The scheduled 30-minute, doors-off aerial photography flight was operated by Liberty Helicopters, Inc., on behalf of FlyNYON under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the flight, which originated from Helo Kearny Heliport (65NJ), Kearny, New Jersey about 1900.

Summary of Pilot Interview

According to the pilot, after he arrived at 65NJ on the day of the accident, he performed a preflight inspection of the helicopter and made sure it was fueled. The first group of passengers from FlyNYON was scheduled to arrive at 1100. The pilot then completed multiple 15- to 30-minute flights that day but could not recall how many.

About 1845, he received a text message from FlyNYON operations personnel scheduling the accident flight. When the FlyNYON van arrived, the pilot checked his passengers' harnesses and put their life vests on. He pointed out where the cutting tool was located on their harness and explained how to use it. He then seated the passengers and secured their harness tethers to hard points on the helicopter. After the passengers were seated, loading personnel assisted them with putting on the helicopter's restraints (For the purpose of this report, "restraint" refers to the seabelt and shoulder harness installed by the helicopter manufacturer, and "harness" refers to the system provided by FlyNYON).

Before he started the helicopter, the pilot provided a safety briefing that included which of the passengers was going to remove their restraints and which would remain buckled in their restraints during the flight. He asked the passengers to confirm what sights they wanted to see, and they put their headsets on. He finished the safety briefing and again explained how to use the cutting tool to cut the seatbelts. He told them where the fire extinguisher was and told them that if there was an emergency he would tell the passengers to get back into their seats. He confirmed their points of interest and did a communications check through the headsets. The passengers could hear him and radio traffic, but they did not have microphones and could not speak to the pilot or each other.

Shortly after starting the helicopter's engine, the pilot departed behind two other helicopters and began heading toward the Statue of Liberty at an altitude of between 300 and 500 ft above ground level (agl). During flight, the outboard passengers (left front, left rear, and right rear) stayed in their seats and restraints but turned sideways (outboard) to take photographs. The inboard passengers removed their restraints but remained tethered in their harnesses and sat on the floor with their feet on the helicopter's skids. They flew at 500 ft to the Brooklyn Bridge before continuing up the East River to Central Park. The pilot contacted LaGuardia Airport air traffic control, and the controller provided the pilot with a transponder code and advised him to stay south of the extended centerline of runway 22. He requested to fly at 2,000 ft and began a shallow climb while the left side passengers took photographs of midtown Manhattan. As the helicopter neared the eastern boundary of Central Park, the pilot slowed the helicopter to between 20 and 30 knots groundspeed so the passengers could take photographs. At this point, he noticed that the front passenger's restraint was hanging from the seat. He picked it up, tapped the passenger, and told him to put it back on, which he did. During the interview the pilot also recalled that other passengers had inadvertently released their seatbelts during previous flights.

As they were flying along the eastern side of Central Park, the front seat passenger turned sideways, slid across the double bench seat toward the pilot, leaned back, and extended his feet to take a photograph of his feet outside the helicopter. As the pilot initiated a right pedal turn to begin to head south, the nose of the helicopter began to turn right faster than he expected, and he heard a low rotor rpm alert in his headset. He then observed engine pressure and fuel pressure warning lights and believed he had experienced an engine failure. He lowered the collective pitch control to maintain rotor rpm and let the nose continue to turn to the right. Central Park came into view and he briefly considered landing there but thought there were "too many people." He continued the turn back toward the East River and made his first distress call to air traffic control. He yelled to the passengers to get back in their seats. Due to the helicopter's airspeed, he was not sure he could make it to the East River and reduced rotor rpm so he could "glide better." Once he was in an established autorotative glide, he attempted to restart the engine but was unsuccessful. He waited 1 or 2 seconds and tried the starter again, but there were no positive indications of a successful engine restart on the instrumentation. He checked the fuel control lever and found that it was still in its detent for normal operation. When he was sure he could clear the buildings and make it to the river, he activated the floats at an altitude of about 800 ft agl.

At this point he was "committed to impact," and, when he reached down for the emergency fuel shutoff lever, he realized that it was in the off position. He also noted that a portion of the front seat passenger's tether was underneath the lever.

As the helicopter continued to descend through 600 ft agl, he positioned the fuel shutoff lever to the "on" position and attempted to restart the engine. He observed positive indications on the engine instruments immediately. As the helicopter descended through 300 ft, he realized that the engine "wasn't spooling up fast enough," and, given the helicopter's proximity to the surface, he had to continue the autorotation. He again reached for the fuel shutoff lever and positioned it back to "off." Passing through between 100 and 50 ft, he began the cyclic flare in an extended glide configuration, but he "did not get a lot of rpm back." He performed a flare reduction at 10 to 15 ft. He pulled the collective pitch control up "as far as it would go." The helicopter then impacted the water at 5° to 10° nose-up attitude.

After impacting the water, the chin bubble on the pilot's side began to fill with water, which quickly covered the floor. He kept his restraint on and reached down for the front seat passenger's carabiner attachment to the helicopter. He turned the knurled screw "two or three rotations"; by that time, the helicopter was "listing past a 45° roll." He then decided to egress the helicopter, and by the time he unbuckled his restraint, he was fully under water. He used two hands to grab the door frame and pull himself out. He surfaced about 4 ft away from the nose of the helicopter and crawled up onto the belly. He stood up and waved for help but could not see anything.

Recovery and Initial Examination of the Helicopter

A tugboat was the first vessel to arrive at the accident site, and the crew began to render assistance. First responders later arrived, and subsequently extricated the five passengers from the helicopter. The helicopter remained submerged in an inverted position in the East River for about 18 hours before it was recovered at slack tide the following day.

Examination of the helicopter revealed that it had been substantially damaged during the impact sequence. Continuity of the flight controls was observed between the cyclic, collective, main rotor servos, and the main rotor head. The cyclic, collective, and pedal control tubes underneath the cockpit floor remained intact. No evidence of blockages or foreign object debris was observed on the engine air inlet barrier filter. Continuity of drive was confirmed between the engine power turbine and the main rotor head. The red main rotor blade remained attached to its respective sleeve and was fractured chordwise about 4 ft from the main rotor blade attachment bolts. The blue and yellow blades were attached to their respective sleeves and were damaged. All three-main rotor blade pitch change links remained attached at their respective pitch horn and rotating swashplate. The vibration absorber remained installed on top of the main rotor head.

Both tail rotor blades remained attached to their hub. One tail rotor blade exhibited a chordwise fracture about 6 inches from its root end. The pitch link of this blade was bent near the outboard rod end. The second tail rotor blade was generally intact, and its pitch links did not exhibit deformation. Rotation of the tail rotor resulted in rotation of the aluminum tail rotor drive shaft's forward riveted connection, but the shaft rotated within the external splined adapter. The external splined adapter remained connected to the internal-splined [flange] adapter and was continuous through the steel tail rotor drive shaft to the tail rotor drive output flange to the engine reduction gearbox. There was no evidence of binding when manually rotating the tail rotor drive.

The fuel flow control lever was found in the off position. The fuel shutoff lever was found in the open position. The snapwire (witness wire) between the fuel shutoff lever and the engine control housing was broken at its lower end where it was normally secured through a hole in the control housing.

The collective stick was in its normally installed position. The collective position was nearly full down. The collective friction lock was able to be rotated by hand. The cyclic stick was in its normally installed position. The cyclic position was found to be aft right. The cyclic friction lock was able to be easily rotated by hand. The collective lever lock was in its stowed position on the center console. Both pedals were found in their normally installed position. The right pedal position was nearly full-forward with a corresponding aft position of the left pedal. The pedals could not be manually actuated. A portable fire extinguisher was found loose in the front-right chin bubble.

Examination of the engine revealed that the engine was still mounted in the helicopter and the cowling was intact. There were no signs of oil or fuel leaks, fire, or uncontainment. The exhaust duct was intact and undamaged. The power turbine wheel could be rotated easily, but only in the free-wheeling direction, which was consistent with internal continuity as well as an intact and operating rotor clutch. The trailing edges of the power turbine blades were examined through the exhaust duct and were all present and undamaged. The gas generator (GG) spool was accessed by reaching into the air inlet duct and turning the axial compressor wheel. The GG spool could be rotated easily by hand; however, a faint scratching noise could be heard from the core, consistent with corrosion due to salt water contact on the shaft bearings. The four magnetic oil chip detectors were removed and found absent of debris. The oil filter bypass indicator was not triggered indicating no blockage in the oil filter. The fuel supply line from the firewall to the fuel pump was disconnected at the firewall fitting and fuel was observed to drain from the line.

Examination of the emergency float system revealed that the three floats installed on the left landing gear skid appeared to be more inflated than the floats on the right landing gear skid. The emergency floats' left pressurized gas cylinder gauge indicated about 0 psi, while the right pressurized gas cylinder gauge indicated about 4,000 psi. A functional check was performed by actuating the cyclic trigger (which is what is used to activate the floats). 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.

Examination of the seats and restraint systems revealed that the five passengers onboard the helicopter were provided with airframe manufacturer-installed restraints, as well as a full body harness. The harness system was not installed by the helicopter manufacturer and was comprised of off-the-shelf components consisting of a nylon fall-protection harness that was attached at the occupants' back by a locking carabiner to a lanyard. The lanyard was composed of multiple woven fabric loops, and the opposite end of the lanyard was secured by another locking carabiner to a hard point on the helicopter. A small pouch was attached to the harness and contained a cutting tool. Under normal circumstances, at the end of each flight, FlyNYON personnel would unscrew the locking carabiner located on the back of the passengers' harnesses so that the passengers could egress.

The wreckage was retained by the NTSB for further examination.

Aircraft and Owner/Operator Information

Registration: N350LH
Model/Series: AS350B2
Aircraft Category: Helicopter
Amateur Built: No
Operating Certificate(s) Held: Certificate of Authorization or Waiver (COA); On-demand Air Taxi (135)
Operator Does Business As:
Operator Designator Code: OEMJ 

Meteorological Information and Flight Plan

Conditions at Accident Site:  Visual Conditions
Condition of Light: Dusk
Observation Facility, Elevation: LGA, 21 ft msl
Observation Time: 1914 EDT
Distance from Accident Site: 3 Nautical Miles
Temperature/Dew Point: 7°C / -6°C
Lowest Cloud Condition: Scattered / 250 ft agl
Wind Speed/Gusts, Direction: 7 knots, 330°
Lowest Ceiling: None
Visibility:  10 Miles
Altimeter Setting: 30.06 inches Hg
Type of Flight Plan Filed: None
Departure Point: KEARNY, NJ (65NJ)
Destination: KEARNY, NJ (65NJ)

Wreckage and Impact Information

Crew Injuries: 1 Minor
Aircraft Damage: Substantial
Passenger Injuries: 5 Fatal
Aircraft Fire: None
Ground Injuries: N/A
Aircraft Explosion: None
Total Injuries: 5 Fatal, 1 Minor
Latitude, Longitude:  40.773611, -73.939444 (est)

For months before an open-sided helicopter capsized in the East River, drowning five passengers who had been strapped inside, pilots for the company that operated the flight warned their bosses about dangerous conditions, including equipment that could make escape difficult. 

The pilots repeatedly requested more suitable safety gear, with one pilot writing in an email to company management that “we are setting ourselves up for failure” by using sometimes poorly fitting harnesses. That pilot made a series of recommendations — including one four days before the fatal accident — for new tools that would allow passengers to more easily free themselves in case of an emergency, according to company emails, other internal documents and interviews.

The internal documents reviewed by The New York Times indicate that executives for the company, FlyNYON, bristled at the pilots’ concerns, insisting that the operation, which offered the chance to snap selfies while leaning out over the city, was safe.

“Let me be clear, this isn’t a safety issue with the harnesses,” Patrick K. Day, the chief executive of FlyNYON, said in a January email exchange with pilots who had raised concerns. Mr. Day, in a statement to The Times, rejected the idea “that anyone at FlyNYON did not heed issues raised by pilots at Liberty Helicopter” — an affiliated company that owned and operated the helicopters used in FlyNYON flights — “and that we failed to respond to safety concerns.” 
Less than two months after the email exchange, on March 11, a FlyNYON flight splashed in the East River after losing power and quickly rolled over, trapping its pilot and five passengers upside down in the frigid water.

The passengers were outfitted with some of the equipment that the pilots had raised concerns about — yellow harnesses connected to tethers that strapped them into the copter, and small cutters to slice through the tethers so they could free themselves in an emergency. The pilot, Richard Vance, was the only one who was not wearing such a harness; he used a standard seatbelt and was the sole survivor.

Mr. Vance told federal investigators that he tried to free the passenger beside him, but the helicopter was submerged before he could finish unhooking the man’s harness, according to a preliminary report.

Surging Business 

The internal documents, and interviews with people familiar with FlyNYON’s operation and Mr. Vance’s account, paint a portrait of a company that at times appeared to put business concerns ahead of safety concerns as it scrambled to meet surging demand for a daring form of aerial tourism that it pioneered.

While government regulations and professional standards had not kept pace, the company claimed on its website that it had developed a proprietary safety system that was the class of the industry. In fact, the documents and interviews show that FlyNYON had been using mostly off-the-shelf construction harnesses that it had planned to upgrade — and that sometimes were supplemented by zip ties and blue painters tape — and tethers that could not be easily severed by the cutters provided.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. The Federal Aviation Administration, which had not previously specifically regulated doors-off helicopter flights, has banned any flights that use restraints that passengers cannot quickly get out of, a prohibition aimed squarely at FlyNYON.

Multiple pilots who have worked with FlyNYON and Liberty Helicopters — including the pilot who warned of the harnesses in the email — are seeking whistle-blower protections in order to speak out. They have retained a Washington lawyer who specializes in whistle-blower matters, Debra Katz. She has asked the New York attorney general’s office to investigate FlyNYON, and she sent a letter to the F.A.A., claiming that the pilots were subject to retaliation.

As a result, she wrote, “there is a pervasive feeling among Liberty pilots that if they provide truthful information to the F.A.A. and the N.T.S.B. and speak out about the lax safety culture and practices at FlyNYON, they will face blackballing in the industry and other forms of career-derailing retaliation.” The New York attorney general’s office has begun a consumer-protection investigation into FlyNYON’s business practices and demanded that the company cease promoting doors-off flights, according to a person who had been briefed on the investigation.

Mr. Day, in his statement to The Times, pointed out that the F.A.A. had performed a site inspection of FlyNYON’s facility on Oct. 31, at which “inspectors observed the harness and tethering process and continued to permit their use on Liberty and FlyNYON operated flights without issue.”

The F.A.A. confirmed that it conducted “routine oversight” of Liberty’s operations on Oct. 31 and “observed supplemental harnesses outside a helicopter.” But a spokesman for the agency said that its inspectors would not have rendered judgment on the harnesses because supplemental restraints are not subject to inspection. Liberty Helicopters declined to comment.

Unique Sightseeing 

Like some air-tour companies in other tourist destinations, FlyNYON offered flights on helicopters with the doors open or removed to allow passengers to take unobstructed photographs of the landscape below. But FlyNYON went a step further by putting passengers in harnesses attached to tethers that would let them lean out of — or dangle their legs over — the edge of the cabin.
It was an experience that previously had been available mostly to professional photographers, who booked private flights where they were often the only passengers and, therefore, could be more closely monitored by the pilots. Mr. Day and his partners recognized the potential profit in offering such an experience more widely in an era when social media users are willing to pay handsomely for activities that produce thumb-scroll-stopping photos.

“Anyone can come up and be an aerial photographer with us,” says one of FlyNYON’s promotional videos.

The company encouraged its customers to post shots of their feet suspended over landmarks like the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building — images the company called “shoe selfies” — on Instagram and other social media platforms. And remember, its workers requested, to please tag the company in those posts, helping to spread the word about FlyNYON’s service.
The social-media strategy was working, drawing more and more people to an industrial section of Kearny, N.J., on the edge of the Port of Newark, from which FlyNYON helicopters depart for flights over Manhattan. New York City officials had prohibited sightseeing tours from flying over land, or flying at all on Sundays. But FlyNYON got around the restrictions by departing from New Jersey and designating its flights as aerial photography missions rather than tours with defined itineraries.

Mr. Day boasted in an internal email in February that FlyNYON had defied its doubters, whom he called “dinosaurs,” and had increased its business last year by 400 percent. The company was charging as much as $500 a seat for five-passenger flights lasting 30 to 40 minutes over New York, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. By December, it was booking as many as 28 flights a day, the emails said.

Some experienced pilots, like Bill Richards, saw what FlyNYON was doing and considered it reckless. Mr. Richards, who flies camera crews in helicopters around New York to film for movies and TV shows, said, “It looked crazy to all of us who do this for a living.”

He said at one point he provided a store-bought harness for professional photographers to wear while leaning out of his helicopter. But he abandoned that practice long ago, he said, and has since kept his passengers in their seats or on a camera mount approved by the F.A.A. “Anybody who’s in a helicopter has to have an approved seat” — unless planning to make a parachute jump, Mr. Richards said, citing a specific F.A.A. regulation.

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-February, six loads of FlyNYON customers were aboard helicopters trying to get pictures of the city at sundown, according to emails between company officials. The crowd of thrill seekers was overwhelming FlyNYON’s resources, the emails show. At times, the company did not have enough harnesses, tethers, carabiners or headsets to outfit one group of passengers while another was in the air, delaying liftoff, one FlyNYON official complained in a February email with the subject line, “more gear needed.”

The company’s website says “safety has always been our top priority,” and boasts of comprehensive and rigorous passenger safety protocols. But the emails and interviews painted a different picture.

Among its claims was the promise of a “proprietary eight-point safety harness system.” A pilot who has worked with FlyNYON said that the company’s most commonly used harness was actually not proprietary at all, nor was it intended for aviation use. Rather, it was merely a yellow nylon construction harness available on Home Depot’s website for $52, which came in only one size.

Pilot Complaints

Pilots complained that the harnesses were too big to properly fit smaller customers, including many women and children, according to the emails. They show that FlyNYON staff members were instructed at one point to use zip ties to achieve a tighter fit.

And to keep those harnesses and passengers’ seatbelts from unbuckling accidentally in flight — which would not have released the harnesses completely — FlyNYON staffers often used tape that Mr. Day referred to as “NYON blue safety tape,” according to three pilots who have worked with FlyNYON. But the “safety tape” was just common painters’ tape, said the pilots, one of whom wrote the email warning about the harnesses and is among those being represented by the whistle-blower lawyer. The pilots requested anonymity because of fears of retaliation and because they did not want to jeopardize employment in the close-knit helicopter community.

Mr. Day, in his statement to The Times, minimized the concerns, pointing out that under F.A.A. rules, pilots have responsibility for the safety of their flights. He said “if these handful of Liberty pilots had issues that they deemed detrimental to the safety of the operation, they should have ceased operations and addressed the issue with Liberty management.”

The three pilots said FlyNYON brushed aside many of the concerns they did raise, though the company did make some changes based on their complaints.

After pilots expressed concern about the tape, they were told in December that FlyNYON had “put an order in for thick rubber bands which will hold the front buckle in place,” according to the minutes of a pilots’ meeting. “This will eliminate the need for the ‘blue tape’ on the harnesses.”

According to emails and interviews, pilots preferred a different model of harness that could be adjusted to fit passengers of varying sizes without the use of zip ties. The harnesses, which were blue, were considered safer partly because they connected to the tethers in a place that passengers could more easily reach to try to detach themselves. And the blue harnesses were approved by the F.A.A. for some uses, though not specifically open-door helicopters flights, which had not been explicitly addressed in F.A.A. rules.

FlyNYON intended to eventually replace all the yellow harnesses with blue ones, according to emails in November. And a company official told pilots in a January email that the “blue harnesses should take priority over yellow harnesses.”

Yet, when pilots insisted on blue harnesses for some smaller passengers, in one instance delaying a flight by requesting a switch, Mr. Day responded testily. In a January email, he wrote that “the yellow harnesses are stunt/construction harnesses that are designed for human safety hanging off buildings at 1,000 feet-plus. The blue harnesses are F.A.A. approved but that isn’t a requirement for a doors-off flight. The yellow harnesses are just as legal/safe as the blue.”

At the time of the crash, the company had only a few blue harnesses in use.

Cutting the Harness 

Likewise, the company’s pilots raised concerns about the tethers used to secure the passengers, via their harnesses, to the interior of the helicopters. It was difficult for passengers to reach the point at which the tethers fastened to their yellow harnesses, and, even if they could reach the connection, it would be difficult for them to disconnect the carabineers that connected the tethers to the harnesses on their own, according to the pilots who worked with FlyNYON. So each passenger was provided a hook-shaped blade, marketed as a seatbelt cutter, that they were instructed to use to sever the tether in case of an emergency that required them to extricate themselves. A safety video played for passengers before they went on trips showed people using the cutters to easily slice through the tethers, according to people who viewed it. But the tethers in the video were not the same ones being used by FlyNYON. And when employees tested the equipment that was in use in November, they found it extremely difficult to sever the tether using the cutter, according to the former FlyNYON official.

Managers from FlyNYON were present for the test, the former official said. But it was not until February that the company began formally considering a plan to order new tethers and cutters that would allow for easier slicing, according to the emails. The minutes of a late February meeting highlight a discussion about “researching and procuring a new cutter for the tethers which we will be testing shortly. There is also a new style of tether we are looking into as well. This will need to be included in the safety video.”

On March 7 — just four days before the crash — the company planned to discuss a “final decision” on the new tethers and cutters, according to the emails.

It is unclear if FlyNYON purchased the new equipment, but, even if it did, the new tethers and cutters were not deployed on the fatal March 11 flight. Instagram videos posted by the passengers before liftoff show them wearing the yellow harnesses.

A preliminary report by the N.T.S.B. indicated that the pilot, Mr. Vance, told investigators that he had “pointed out where the cutting tool was located on their harness and explained how to use it” before taking off.

While hovering over Central Park, he told them, the single-engine helicopter, an AS350 B2 model made by Airbus, suddenly lost power. When he reached down to cut the flow of fuel as he prepared to put the aircraft down in the river, he saw that the fuel cutoff lever had been tripped and the tether of his front-seat passenger was under it. That observation suggested that the passenger’s movement may have caused the crash, though federal investigators have not reached a conclusion about the cause. 
After the crash, Dave Matula, a pilot who used to fly for FlyNYON who stopped last year, wrote on Facebook that the fatalities were a “horrible but 100 percent preventable event.”

Read more here ➤

New York (CNN)    You're soaring 2,000 feet above Manhattan's sparkling East River, the distant skyline glistening at dusk as your feet dangle from the side of a whirring doors-off helicopter.

"It feels like when you are on top of the world," Judith Verweijen, of the Netherlands, said of her recent flight. "You don't think about fear. You think about the joy ... that you're able to do that."

That aura of invincibility shattered last Sunday evening -- one day after Verweijen's excursion -- when a helicopter booked by the same firm she flew with splashed into the East River. Five passengers drowned, unable to break free from harnesses meant to prevent them from falling out. The pilot escaped.

It was the deadliest crash involving a national doors-off helicopter tour. Experts say the industry runs with scant oversight, even as its popularity surges in step with the desire -- especially among millennials -- for breathtaking, unobstructed photos to post on social media.

"This accident has the potential to be a watershed event for the industry," said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

"There are clear questions about whether this type of operation was appropriately overseen by the FAA and others."

In light of the fatal crash, the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday issued an order suspending "doors off" flights involving "restraints that cannot be released quickly in an emergency."

"Operators, pilots, and consumers should be aware of the hazard presented by supplemental restraint devices in the event of an emergency evacuation during 'doors off' flights," the statement said. "The FAA will order operators and pilots to take immediate actions to control or mitigate this risk."

With its mandate, the agency seems to have keyed in on a critical difference between doors-off flights, which strap in passengers with harnesses, and traditional helicopter tours, which use seat belts. While a harness might seem safer to untrained thrill-seekers who want to snap a "shoe selfie" to pin on Instagram or Facebook, they also can prove harder to escape in an emergency.

The order affects "several dozen" national helicopter tour companies offering doors-off flights, FAA spokesman Gregory Martin told CNN. Tours from major cities to the Grand Canyon to remote scenic locations on the Hawaiian Islands are affected. All operators must be certified by the FAA. 

The agency said it also was conducting a top-to-bottom "review of its rules governing these flights to examine any potential misapplication that could create safety gaps for passengers."

Meantime, US Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York 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.

Martin said FlyNYON, the tour company that hired Liberty, has suspended its doors-off flights, but the company did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

'No evidence of abnormalities'

The FAA conducts on-site visits as well as reviews of maintenance and safety records with a limited number of inspectors, Martin said.

"You have inspectors that also have air carriers with hundreds of flights a day carrying hundreds of people," he said. "So there's a risk-based approach there versus very limited and specific operations for these helicopters."

The NTSB said last week it had interviewed Liberty Helicopters' personnel, including the pilot, adding that the helicopter's engine showed "no evidence of abnormalities."

The crash was Liberty Helicopters' third in the past 11 years.

Investigators are scrutinizing the harnesses. They also are inspecting the helicopter, its flotation devices, the weather and other factors, the NTSB said.

Liberty Helicopters posted a statement on its website after the crash, saying it was "focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and on fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB investigations."

FlyNYON said it was fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB investigation, according to a Twitter statement.

Since the crash, the companies have referred CNN's requests for comment to federal agencies.

The FAA action comes after years of warnings by experts who have predicted that lax rules governing the commercial air tour industry could invite a deadly wreck much like the one in New York.

'Less stringent operations'

Aviation experts have pointed to specific dangers inherent to commercial air tours.

Last week's flight was conducted under Part 91 of FAA regulations as a commercial flight for "aerial photography," which apply to air tour operators that take off and land at the same airport and stay within 25 miles of that airport, Martin said.

Companies governed by Part 91 have "less stringent operations, maintenance, and training specifications" and are more likely to crash than other commercial air operations, according to a 2014 study for the National Institutes of Health by Navy flight surgeon Sarah-Blythe Ballard.

"The Part 91 air tour crash rate of 3.5 per 100,000 (hours) flown is similar to the reported crash rates in categories considered to be 'high hazard' commercial aviation," said the study, referring to operations such as emergency medical flights and transport to off-shore drilling sites.

Part 91 tour aircraft have less stringent flight-duty-time and rest requirements as well as lower pilot qualification standards, according to another study by the same author.

Aviation experts and the NTSB have long recommended elimination of the "25-mile exception," which allows flights without stricter FAA flight data monitoring and pilot-training required of other commercial operators to fly within 25 nautical miles of the departure airport, the study said.

But the FAA said in 2007 -- the last time the regulation was amended -- that many companies operating under the exception would "go out of business" if the rule were eliminated, according to an agency report on its National Air Tour Safety Standards.

"The FAA believes there are other alternatives to achieve satisfactory safety goals, minimize impact on the industry, and still increase the level of safety, rather than eliminating the 25-mile exception," said the agency, referring to requirements for pontoons on over-water flights and briefings on emergency landings, water ditching, and the use of seat belts and life preservers.

The rules were created "at a time that didn't comprehend that every person would have a cellphone with a panoramic feature recording device or GoPro cameras," Martin said. They applied almost exclusively to professional photography and survey work.

"So you didn't want to limit very specific and unique type of operations with the same level of oversight that would apply to flights carrying dozens or a hundred-plus people," he said.

Today, those rules are being revisited.

"Certainly you've seen new revenue opportunities for some of these operators," Martin said. "In the case of this flight -- to take people up and have them shoot panoramic scenes with their iPhones."

'Nearly impossible ... to escape'

The level of instruction offered to helicopter tour passengers on escaping safety harnesses has also come into question.

The FAA requires all over-water commercial air tour operations to conduct preflight safety briefings "on procedures for water ditching, use of required life preservers, and emergency exit procedures in the event of a water landing."

There is no requirement to specifically instruct passengers on escaping harnesses during an emergency. 

Verweijen, the woman who took a FlyNYON tour the day before the crash, told CNN she works in the offshore oil and gas industry and has regularly flown over water in a helicopter. She said bailing out of a sinking aircraft requires practice and expertise.

"In my opinion, it is nearly impossible for a non-trained passenger to escape," said Verweijen, who has received helicopter underwater escape training. "You completely lose the orientation."

A 2014 study on helicopter crashes into water, published in the journal "Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine," said reports of such accidents showed "the principal cause of death was drowning from failure to escape due to disorientation."

The reports showed that helicopters making water landings typically sink rapidly and flip over. The journal article recommended increased training emphasizing the lack of warning in accidents, underwater escape maneuvers and post-crash survival in the water.

"It is dark, cold and you cannot see anything," Verweijen said. "The pilot could get out because he was trained."

Passengers who took flight with FlyNYON prior to the crash said they were shown brief safety videos. One shared the video with CNN.

The three-minute video devotes about 20 seconds to how to get out of what the company calls its "proprietary 8 Point Safety Harness System" during an emergency landing.

"In the rare case of an emergency, the harness can be released by opening the quick-release clip in the back of the harness," a voice on the video says.

A curved cutter located on the harness' shoulder strap can also be used to cut through the strap, according to the video.

There was no mention of how to escape a sinking helicopter, or the disorientation that is common as the aircraft goes underwater rapidly and, many times, turns upside down.

After the crash, police and fire department emergency divers, in frigid waters, discovered that the safety harnesses had become death traps. The pilot escaped, but his five passengers died from accidental drowning.

FlyNYON offers its "doors off helicopter photo experience" in New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles, promising to make "professional aerial photography services accessible to everyone," according to its website.

A promotional video offers stunning views of the city, with two young women in heels and a young man in plaid shorts and sneakers with legs dangling from a helicopter dancing over the East River to music worthy of a Hollywood movie trailer. 

"You're looking down at the city that never sleeps," the company website says of the 15-minute "New York experience" flight. "Trying to take it all in. Dangling your feet for a #shoeselfie."

The experience isn't cheap. FlyNYON's 11 flight offerings in the city range from $99 to $2,000 for online bookings.

In New York alone, the helicopter tour industry contributes $50 million a year to the local economy and employs more than 200 people, according to the Helicopter Tourism and Jobs Council.

Last week's deadly crash, though, could change that.

"I realize you get a good picture if you have a door open but the door-open rule was put in for ... commercial aerial photography, not for tourists," Goelz said.

"The NTSB is going to look very closely at this whole harnessing system and the process of approving it."

Original article can be found here ➤

The Federal Aviation Administration has ordered helicopter operators to suspend “doors off” flights that require passengers to wear difficult-to-release harnesses.

The order comes days after a crash in New York City when a helicopter on such a flight made an emergency landing on the East River and rolled over. The five passengers who were wearing harnesses drowned. Only the pilot escaped.

“Operators, pilots, and consumers should be aware of the hazard presented by supplemental restraint devices in the event of an emergency evacuation during ‘doors off’ flights,” the FAA said in a statement Friday.

The FAA said that helicopter operators must suspend the use of such harnesses until ways can be found to mitigate risks posed by restraints that can’t be released quickly in an emergency. The agency also said it would review its policies on such flights to see if there are other “safety gaps” for passengers.

Doors-off flights, which have gained in popularity, offer unencumbered views and are popular for photography, but they require the complicated safety harnesses.

The parents of one of the victims of the crash, 26-year-old Trevor Cadigan, have filed a lawsuit against Liberty Helicopters, of Kearny, N.J., saying it was “grossly negligent and reckless” for placing him in a harness from which it was difficult to escape.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the harnesses. It is also probing why the helicopter was forced to land on the river and why its inflatable pontoons didn’t keep it from rolling over.

So far, investigators found nothing wrong with the helicopter’s engine or flight controls before the crash.

Despite high-profile government and industry safety initiatives, both the total number and frequency of serious U.S. helicopter crashes have remained stubbornly high in recent years. Last year, the overall fatal-accident rate in the U.S. for all helicopters inched higher, compared with the two previous years, according to preliminary data from the industry and the FAA.

Possible dangers of sightseeing flights also came under scrutiny last month, when a helicopter crashed and burned on a tour of the Grand Canyon, killing five British tourists and severely injuring the pilot and a passenger.

Stretching back several years, the FAA has taken action to improve the survival rate in helicopter crashes by requiring sturdier seats and more fire-resistant fuel systems.

Original article can be found here ➤

​NEW YORK (March 15, 2018)—The National Transportation Safety Board continued its investigation Thursday into the March 11, 2018, accident in which an Airbus Helicopters AS350B2 (N350LH) impacted New York’s East River.

The helicopter was substantially damaged when it hit the water and subsequently rolled inverted during an autorotation, killing five passengers and injuring the pilot.

Significant activities of the investigation include:

Interviewed Liberty Helicopters personnel, including the accident pilot

Conducted a teardown of the helicopter’s engine; no evidence of abnormalities was found

Examined structure of helicopter; no evidence of pre-impact breakup

Examined flight controls and found no pre-impact failure or malfunctions

Interviewed witnesses to crash; interviews continue

Obtained air traffic control voice and weather data, which is being reviewed in Washington

Examined float system on helicopter, and this examination continues

NTSB investigators are seeking videos that show different angles or aspects of the accident sequence. Broadcasters or witnesses with video are asked to contact the NTSB at

The pilot of the helicopter, Richard Vance, after emerging from the frigid waters of New York City's East River. 

From top left, Brian McDaniel, Trevor Cadigan, Daniel Thompson, Tristan Hill and Carla Vallejos Blanco


The leading trade group for helicopter operators has, for at least two years, urged a halt to open-door tours such as the one March 11 that ended in the death of five people in the East River off Manhattan.

The Helicopter Association International, which also represents pilots and others in the industry, has been warning against the growing practice of allowing people to photograph from copters without doors and has refused to certify those operations, Dan Sweet, the group’s spokesman, said in an interview.

“We just believe that helicopter tours should be flown with doors closed,” Sweet said. “HAI wants to create the safest possible flight for the public.”

The five people who died when their helicopter lost power and had to put down in the East River were tethered to the craft by ropes attached to harnesses so they wouldn’t fall out through the open doors. They drowned after the helicopter rolled over and sank. Divers had to cut out the bodies, according to the New York Fire Department.

Investigators haven’t found evidence of mechanical problems with the engine, flight controls or other systems, the National Transportation Safety Board said in an email Thursday.

The pilot radioed “mayday” and said he had lost power shortly before the impact. NTSB investigators have interviewed the pilot, but the agency didn’t release any information about what he said.

The passenger harnesses, which differ from traditional aviation seat belts, attached people from the rear and would have been difficult to remove in an emergency, said Eric Adams, a professional photographer who took a flight by the same company on the same night as the accident. The passengers were given knives to cut the ropes in an emergency, though training on how to use them was limited, Adams wrote in an account for an online publication called The Drive.

The pilot of the flight was the only person who escaped after the Airbus SE AS350B2 hit the water and sank.

Tickets on the flight were sold by FlyNYON and the helicopter was operated by Liberty Helicopters. Attempts to reach the companies for comment have been unsuccessful. A statement on Liberty’s website said it was "fully cooperating” with investigations into the crash.

Doors-off photography flights have grown in popularity as the air-tour industry continually tries to come up with new ways to market itself. Companies in Las Vegas, Hawaii and elsewhere advertise such flights.

The government standards governing their operations can be less stringent than for traditional tour flights, according to a person familiar with the practice. U.S. aviation regulations exempt operations including crop dusting, fire fighting and “aerial photography or survey.”

The helicopter association’s Sweet declined to comment on what may have caused the helicopter to apparently lose power.

The group’s president, Matthew Zuccaro, has made his opposition to doorless flights known in conferences and in industry meetings, Sweet said. He reiterated the position as recently as earlier this month at the group’s Heli-Expo trade show in Las Vegas.

The association certifies the safety of helicopter operators and refuses to give its accreditation to companies that conduct tours with open doors.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the industry, is “giving urgent attention to the use of harnesses specifically for aerial photography flights,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.

“As a matter of overall safety awareness, we are preparing further communications and educational outreach to aerial photography operators and consumers on the use of these harnesses,” the agency said.

Original article can be found here ➤

Liberty Helicopters CEO Drew Schaefer

The chief pilot for the company whose helicopter crashed Sunday in the East River — killing all five passengers — spent more than eight years behind bars for repeatedly stabbing a woman during a Long Island robbery, The Post has learned.

Paul Tramontana admitted covering his victim’s face with a pillow and plunging a knife through it during the bloody, 1982 assault in Brentwood — which was spurred by his cocaine habit, court records show.

“Whether I penetrated the pillow or not I can’t say, but I did try to stab her through the pillow,” Tramontana admitted while pleading guilty to second-degree attempted murder.

The chairman and CEO of Liberty Helicopters, Drew Schaefer, 56, has his own skeletons in his closet: alleged stock scams that got him barred from the securities industry, records show.

While CEO of since-shuttered Americorp Securities, Schaefer solicited aftermarket orders ahead of a 1994 initial public offering and delayed purchase orders so he could sell shares to his customers at higher prices, the Securities and Exchange Commission alleged.

He agreed to fork over $200,000 of his ill-gotten gains in a 1997 deal with the SEC that ended his Wall Street career.

New Jersey court records show that Schaefer also was accused in 2003 by partner Alvin Trenk of diverting corporate assets of Liberty’s parent company, Sightseeing Tours of America, for his own use. The case was settled.

Trenk currently sits on Liberty’s board of directors, according to the company’s website.

Liberty has come under fire since Sunday night’s tragedy, in which the passengers drowned while tethered into the cabin of the chopper chartered by ­FlyNYON for a “doors-off” photography flight.

Only pilot Richard Vance survived.

The accident followed at least four others involving Liberty helicopters, including a midair collision with a private plane that killed nine people in 2009.

Tramontana, 56, who was paroled in 1990, was at the controls when a charter flight crashed in New Jersey in heavy fog in 2001. Everyone survived.

Tramontana’s criminal record didn’t keep him from obtaining a pilot’s license because the FAA disqualifies only ex-cons whose convictions involve drugs or alcohol.

But during Tramontana’s sentencing, his defense lawyer said the motive for his vicious robbery of the late Helen Ettl was “monetary problems” that arose while he was “involved with cocaine use and abuse.”

Tramontana and accomplice Michael Basile scammed their way into Ettl’s home believing “there was a sum of $40,000 in there at the time,” Legal Aid lawyer Robert Kenny said.

Ettl’s husband, the late Albert Ettl, told the judge that his wife suffered horribly during and after the April 14, 1982, attack that left her hospitalized for six weeks.

“She will never forget these men who dragged her from room to room, screaming at her to hand over her money, and repeatedly stabbing her,” Albert wrote in a letter opposing any leniency.

A spokesman with Liberty Helicopters said in a statement: “The SEC matter was a civil administrative matter that was resolved in 1998, twenty years ago.  The internal civil corporate matter was resolved ten years ago and resulted in Mr. Schaefer being named Chairman and CEO of Liberty Helicopters, and Mr. Trenk remains on the board.”

Original article can be found here ➤

Chief pilot Paul Tramontana, 56 (pictured), covered a woman's face with a pillow and stabbed through it with a knife during an April 1982 Long Island robbery,

The first lawsuit in the East River helicopter crash has been filed on behalf of the family of one of the five passengers killed.

In a complaint filed in Manhattan State Supreme Court, Kansas City aviation lawyer Gary Robb sued Liberty Helicopters and its pilot Richard Vance, as well as helicopter tour company FlyNYON for negligence in Sunday’s crash, on behalf of Nancy and Jerry Cadigan — parents of passenger Trevor Cadigan, 26, of Manhattan.

Robb, a noted aviation attorney, said in a statement the Cadigan family was “simply shocked and outraged that their son drowned in this manner in what was supposed to be a pleasurable sightseeing helicopter tour.” Robb added there was “no reasonable prospect” that Trevor could have extricated himself from the helicopter safety harness when the aircraft ditched in the river.

In a statement, Robb called the helicopter a “death trap,” adding that Cadigan “would have to be a Houdini to escape the situation.”

The harness system used in the American Eurocopter Corp. aircraft has come under scrutiny as firefighters said they had to cut the belt system to extract the passengers from the helicopter after it overturned in the river. All five passengers drowned.

A spokesman for FlyNYON said, “We are deeply saddened by the loss suffered by the family of Trevor Cadigan and will continue to work closely with the government authorities in their investigation of the accident.”

Officials at Liberty Helicopters didn’t return calls and email messages for comment Wednesday.

The AS350B2 model aircraft took off from Kearny, New Jersey, for a sunset tourist photography flight at 6:56 p.m., according to flight data information provided by Flightradar24, a company that provides live flight information about aircraft all over the world.

A partial flight path shown on the company’s website depicted the helicopter at about 375 feet and tracked it up the East River as it climbed to about 1,350 feet at a point just south of Roosevelt Island.

The flight path ends at that point because, according to Ian Petchenik, a spokesman for Flightradar24, receiving stations that normally triangulate the aircraft’s transponder were likely blocked from receiving data by buildings in the area. 

Despite there not being enough receivers getting a signal from the helicopter, it was still able to be tracked for altitude changes, Petchenik explained. The helicopter continued to climb to about 1,800 feet, apparently still over the East River, when it started to descend. The flight is shown to have ended at 7:06 p.m., according to Flightradar24. Newsday was referred to the radar tracking company by the Federal Aviation Administration.

It is unclear from the flight line imagery when the helicopter suddenly experienced trouble. Near the end of the flight, Vance was heard radioing, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!” to air traffic controllers at LaGuardia Airport. Vance then said he had engine trouble. Amateur video showed the helicopter turning in an easterly direction as it crashed into the East River.

After Vance was rescued by a passing tugboat, he told police that a passenger strap had become intertwined with either the emergency fuel shut-off lever or the main fuel supply lever, cutting off the flow of fuel, a law enforcement official said.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Administration have been going over the heavily damaged helicopter at special facility at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

On Tuesday, the NTSB said it had recovered the flight data recording system from the helicopter, as well as its GoPro camera and other devices.

As part of the investigation, the NTSB was taking apart the helicopter’s engine and having “survival factors investigators” examine the passenger restraint system.

Original article can be found here ➤


  1. The impact looked survivable but only the pilot extricates himself. No doubt they'll be looking at what sort of passenger briefing was given regarding use of the harnesses and egress of the aircraft. Cold water, panic and darkness, all factors I'm sure.
    There was also some speculation as of late about a a strap getting caught on a fuel shutoff valve. 5 passengers with gear plus a pilot. I don't fly helicopters but that seems like a lot crammed into a small cabin. What a terrible tragedy.

  2. After watching the video with the helicopter doing an autorotation landing in the water, I'm amazed that anyone died. Apparently the passengers were not able to unharness and drowned.

  3. I am a commercial rotorcraft pilot but have never had training or experience on full auto water landings. But it’s well known in the biz that the emergency pop out floatation systems are far from perfect in keeping the ship upright. A helicopter has a high center of gravity, and it’s more diffucult than people imagine to keep it from rolling over even in calm water. The FAA only requires full landing power off autos from Rotor CFI candidates I believe. I think the A Star requires a little aft and right cyclic for autos, and that ship did roll right. It’s all very sad, they were young people with lots of life ahead. Also, those passengers should have been able to quickly un buckle and get at a door. Airbus must know the A Star can quickly roll over, even with the Dart float system.

  4. Technically what a disaster. A fuel selector not well guarded, harnesses that are difficult to release and floats that didn't work. Plenty of room for improvement.

  5. Looks like they had 10-15 sec. tops to figure out what to do after they hit the water,no doubt panic then when the chopper started leaning all there belts were probably tight and release made even more difficult..... crashing on land would have been a better option if possible, my 2cents