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.
I was in the air with @FlyNYON at the same time the #helicopter crashed into #NewYork East River. Not confirmed but I believe this is it a few moments before the incident, and on ground prior to takeoff. Matches make (Eurocopter AS350), timing, and color. pic.twitter.com/kt8wOtyI4u
— Eric Adams (@EricAdams321) March 12, 2018
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.
I've taken this exact flght before. Door off/open, harnessed in at the back. There's a short safety briefing but I can't imagine having to cut myself free in this situation, upside-down and underwater. Unthinkable.
— Jason Rabinowitz (@AirlineFlyer) March 12, 2018
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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