Helicopter Tour Industry Under Intense Scrutiny after New York Crash

Sen. Chuck Schumer calls for the suspension of Liberty Helicopters’ operating certificate after five passengers died on Sunday.

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

Five passengers who died in a helicopter crash into New York City’s East River on Sunday were strapped into the doorless Airbus AS350 by five-point harnesses and screwed-down carabiner shackles that required a knife to cut through the nylon safety straps that held the occupants inside, according to reports. When the single-engine helicopter went down in the frigid water, emergency floats kept it from sinking and the pilot managed to swim to safety, but the passengers had no way of quick escape. They were dragged by the river’s currents south for 50 blocks, upside down and underwater, before rescue divers reached them.

Doors-off flights have traditionally been reserved for professional photographers who receive detailed pre-flight safety briefings, but the helicopter flights by tour operator Liberty Helicopters are targeted to tourists as a way of allowing them to capture stunning cityscapes from their safety harnesses without fear of falling out. Safety briefings are short and lack important details, critics say.

Sunday's crash, in which the small helicopter can be seen splashing down into the water after an apparent loss of engine power, left the five passengers with no way out, according to critics. The New York Times yesterday reported that the passengers watched a brief safety video that mentioned knives can be used to cut through the nylon safety straps, but other passengers who flew on Liberty's helicopters told the paper they were never shown by crew members where the knives where located once they boarded.

The deadly episode is focusing intense scrutiny on the helicopter air-tour industry as safety experts question why federal regulations allow passengers to be strapped down in such a way that prevents their quick rescue in the event of a mishap.

"It's not regulated and it should not be allowed," Gary Robb, an aviation lawyer who represented a cameraman who was killed when an open-door helicopter hit a power line in Iowa in 2006, told the Times. "It's like allowing someone to walk on the wing of an airplane, and in my judgment poses too much of a risk."

New York Senator Chuck Schumer has called on the FAA to suspend the operating certificate of Liberty Helicopters, a large sightseeing and charter company based in New Jersey that owns and operates the AS350 B2 that crashed.

FlyNYON, the company that booked the flight, says on its website that it "takes the thrill of shooting images from an open door helicopter and makes it accessible to everyone." Customers are not required to have any training in photography or experience with helicopters, but they must be at least 12 years old, the Times noted in its report.