On March 11, 2018, a sightseeing helicopter lost power over New York City, and landed in the East River. The helicopter quickly capsized. The pilot escaped. His five passengers did not. They drowned. The flight was operated by FlyNYON. This company operates a type of helicopter flight where the side doors of the helicopter are removed, so passengers can lean outside the helicopter to take unobstructed pictures of the scenery below. In order that the passengers don’t fall out, they wear harnesses which are tethered to the helicopter.
I read two articles on this accident. The first appeared two days ago in the New York Times. The second was in Wired. Both described very unsafe practices on the part of the helicopter company. Apparently, if you needed to exit the helicopter quickly, in case of a fire, or submersion, the procedure for escaping the harness/tether involved taking a ‘cutting tool’, supplied by the helicopter company, and slicing the harness/tether to escape. Wait, do what?
As the family of one of the deceased said in their lawsuit, the “policy of providing a knife to each passenger to cut their harness to extricate themselves is grossly negligent and reckless.” Yeah. What he said. Expecting a passenger to be able to execute an exiting maneuver, which involves cutting something with a knife is stupid. Expecting them to execute that maneuver when they’re upside-down, underwater, in the dark is probably criminal.
It’s a huge misreading of what people are capable. None of the five passengers were able to execute it, unfortunately.
According to the New York Times, it was not uncommon for the helicopter company to use blue painter’s tape, and zip ties to further achieve securement of the passengers. You don’t have to be a safety professional to know that if an operation is using knives, tape and zip ties, it’s not that safe.
Furthermore, the pilot who survived seems to think the helicopter went down because the front seat passenger tripped the fuel cutoff lever with his tether, while leaning back to take a picture. I don’t know enough about helicopters to fully comment on that, other than to say, if there’s a button in the cabin that, I, an ignorant passenger can accidentally press, which will kill nearly everyone on board, maybe that’s not a safe setup.
The New York Times states FlyNYON pilots reported numerous safety concerns to their bosses, including CEO Patrick K. Day. They were mostly ignored.
Safety is a mindset, as much as anything. It’s a culture; it’s an attitude. You can have all the regulations in the world, but if you’re not thinking about safety, or interested in it, you will still have accidents. It sounds like FlyNYON may have exploited some loopholes in the FAA regulations, but more than anything, this accident happened because FlyNYON didn’t have a safety mindset.
It will be interesting to see what happens in this case. It certainly seems as if the NYC District Attorney could bring criminal charges against the executives of the helicopter company. This accident just happened, so even if they do bring charges, it will be at least several months before that happens.