Saturday, April 07, 2018

“It looked crazy to all of us who do this for a living”: Eurocopter AS 350B2 Ecureuil, N350LH, operated by Liberty Helicopters Inc on behalf of FlyNYON, fatal accident occurred March 11, 2018 in New York, New York

BILL RICHARDS, a pilot who flies camera crews in helicopters around New York, on the practices of the helicopter tour company FlyNYON. Five people drowned when a FlyNYON flight capsized in the East River last month.

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 ➤

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

Additional Participating Entities: 
Federal Aviation Administration / Flight Standards District Office;  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
FlyNYON; Kearny, New Jersey 
Dart Aerospace; San Diego, California 

Aviation Accident Preliminary Report - National Transportation Safety Board:

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)


  1. People should read the entire NYT article. The email correspondence between the pilots & owners are particularly damning!