FAA Moves to Restrict Doors-Off Helicopter Flights

Measure stems from recent New York City crash fatal to five.

Liberty Helicopters
A Liberty Helicopters New York City tour flight in January.Liberty Helicopters/Twitter

The FAA is moving to temporarily grounding doors-off helicopter tour flights in which passengers are tethered to the aircraft, after the March 11 crash in New York City of a Liberty Helicopters Airbus AS350 that killed five people.

“The FAA will order operators and pilots to take immediate actions to control or mitigate this risk,” the agency said in a statement. “Until then, the FAA will order no more ‘doors off’ operations that involve restraints that cannot be released quickly in an emergency.” The agency is also conducting a “top to bottom review” of the rules governing the operations.

The helicopter air tour industry has begun offering people the chance to photograph landmarks in New York City and Hawaii from helicopters with the doors removed. To keep people from falling out, passengers are often tethered to the helicopter using harnesses. The tether systems in the chartered Liberty Helicopters crash required a knife to cut free from the harness.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Monday issued an urgent safety recommendation calling on the FAA to permanently prohibit commercial flights that use passenger harness systems that do not allow for easy release during emergencies.

“While we applaud the FAA’s intention to move forward on banning these types of doors-off flights, the FAA has not outlined how or when they plan to take action,’’ said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. “And definitive action needs to be taken.”

Five people died when the AS350 crashed in the East River after an autorotation following an apparent loss of engine power. New York Fire Department divers had to cut the passengers’ bodies free. Only the pilot was able to escape after the helicopter hit the water and capsized.