Strap cuts off fuel supply in NYC helicopter crash

The fatal crash earlier this month of a sightseeing helicopter is nothing short of a tragedy. Reading the initial NTSB report corroborates earlier reports from the pilot that a passenger on board may have triggered the fuel shut-off switch during the flight, dooming the aircraft.

From the report:

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. …

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.

The “restraint” referenced in the initial paragraph quoted is the built-in seatbelt from the helicopter manufacturer. It is not clear in the report whether the “tether” stuck under the lever is part of the built-in seatbelt or the harness used for the open-door portion of the trip. Either way, it appears that the passenger “slipping out” of the seatbelt – unclear in the report if on purpose or by accident, but it was definitely supposed to be on based on the pilot’s reaction – contributed to the incident.

Fixing the problems

As a result of the incident the NTSB issued an urgent safety recommendation calling for these harness flights to be prohibited. It comes a decade after a similar incident where passengers were similarly briefed on how to handle the harness but admitted “they became confused with its release when the accident occurred.” Even the trained pilot who deals with the system on a regular basis was fully submerged when he finally was able to release his harness. The complexity and unfamiliarity with the system makes releasing at the time of an incident incredibly difficult. Indeed, in the 2008 incident the surviving passengers didn’t release their harnesses; they slid out from under the lap belt to escape.

The harnesses in use are not reviewed nor approved by the FAA. That creates an interesting predicament as regulations around what is considered safe or acceptable typically come from the agency. These open-door flights were, in some ways, unregulated vis a vis passenger safety systems. That’s almost hard to believe given the level of attention usually paid to such things by the FAA.

The manufacturer-installed restraint systems were required to comply with 14 CFR 27.785(c), which states that “[e]ach occupant’s seat must have a combined safety belt and shoulder harness with a single point release.” According to FAA personnel supporting the investigation, the harness system provided to the passengers was not evaluated by the FAA to determine if it met 14 CFR 27.785(c), nor was it required to meet that regulation because the harness was not required equipment.

Fortunately, the FAA chose to implement the recommendation of the NTSB in this case.

Pilots and operators must cease the conduct of “doors-off” operations for compensation or hire with the use of supplemental passenger restraint systems, unless the supplemental passenger restraint system has been installed on the aircraft pursuant to an FAA approval, including a Type Certificate, Supplemental Type Certificate, or as an approved major alteration using FAA Form 337.

That doesn’t help these five victims and might not even help the next passengers – even knowing how to release the harness doesn’t mean a person will be able to in an emergency. And there are other contributing factors, like the floats on the skids not keeping the aircraft above water. Still, fixing the obvious problems quickly is a good step forward from the FAA.

Header image: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers vessl Driftmaster recovers the Liberty Helicopters’ helicopter that crashed in the East River March 11, 2018. Members of the NYPD Harbor Unit’s Scuba Team rigged the helicopter for the recovery by the Driftmaster. The NTSB is investigating the crash that killed five of the six people aboard the helicopter. (NTSB photo by Chris O’Neil)

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. As much as the inadvertent fuel shutoff appears to be a proximate cause for the ditching, the fact that the passengers were unable to release their harnesses would seem to be the main issue. Limiting “doors off” operations isn’t going to solve the problem of getting loose from the restraints in an emergency.

    1. It will fix the problem in that these harnesses are only used on those flights. If the doors are on there is no need for the harness so you’re back to the factory-installed seat belt which is an FAA-approved quick-release.

    2. We also need to remember the other contributing factors. Why didn’t the skip floats keep the helo afloat longer to allow for more evacuation time, for example?

      Rarely is a single issue responsible for aviation incidents or accidents. That will be the case here as well. But some matter more than others.

    3. Yes, it is usually a series of individual smaller items that individually are survivable but when combined cause a major incident.

    4. I’ve flown in an EC-130 on a doors off sightseeing tour. I can imagine that, if you’re already scared because you’re crashing and then if you’re paralyzed as the cabin fills with ice cold water, it’d be nearly impossible to remember how to get out of the harness, unless you’ve been drilled on it like the pilot had.

  2. The harness somehow affected the fuel shutoff switch? Were the passengers not harnessed properly? If they were, how has this not happened already? How awful

    1. A similar incident in 2008 is mentioned in terms of the harnesses being a problem.

      As for the fuel switch and such, I think that part of the issue is that most passengers likely don’t slide around the same way as the pilot reports the front seat passenger did. Should the straps be shorter so they couldn’t reach that switch to potentially block it? Or some other means to prevent an inadvertent shutoff? Sure. But in the meantime it seems to be a major contributing factor based on the preliminary report.

  3. The goal of NYON’s homebuilt harnessing system is to keep passengers in the aircraft at altitude, not to allow them to quickly egress from the aircraft. The risk of accidentally self-ejecting from the helicopter using a typical quick release system is relatively greater than the risk of crash landing in water and needing to quickly escape, so that’s deemed to be the acceptable risk. As a former NYON employee, I’m intimately familiar with the harnessing components and I can unequivocally say that there’s almost zero chance of escaping in a quick manner, especially not when you’re capsized in murky water. The fundamental assumption is that you’ll land safely, and absent that all bets are off.

    1. Massive conjecture on my part, but if the pax spun sideways and pulled the strap to full extension and then it slipped down then sat himself back up when the pilot got mad maybe tugging on the strap would catch under the lever and move it. Without knowing the lengths of the straps and such, however, and never having been in the type I’m really just guessing.

    2. It’s certainly not impossible I guess, but having done a number of flights in that very seat, doors open and closed in N350LH and N351LH, you’d have to really be out of bounds to have gotten anywhere close to that kill lever, shoe selfie or not.

    3. I suppose there is also always the option of “something else happened” but the pilot is the only survivor so that makes it much harder to know other options. I agree that, based on the location and operation of the mechanism, there are some questions to be asked/answered about how that could happen. I trust that the NTSB will do that. The organization is pretty incredible at investigations.

    1. There are options for other quick-release type harnesses that would likely be more reliable than water-triggered. They’re way more expensive.

  4. Unless there’s a significant mechanical failure, a helicopter can, after loss of power, autorotate to achieve a soft or low impact touch down. The aircraft would then likely remain upright while floating for a considerable length of time. Is this pure conjecture? Well, I’m a former U.S. military helicopter pilot with considerable combat experience and countless practice autorotations in numerous different series and models.

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