Stop Doors-Off Helo Flights: NTSB


The NTSB says doors-off helicopter flights where passengers are secured with safety harnesses should stop. This recommendation comes after reviewing the March 2018 accident where five passengers perished in New York’s East River and includes the board urging the FAA to close a loophole that allows such flights under the guise of aerial photography.

“These companies were knowingly exploiting a loophole to avoid stronger regulation and oversight and people died because of it,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt. “These types of doors-off flights with dangerous supplemental restraints that could get tangled or caught on something and hamper escape ought to stop before others get hurt.”

According to the NTSB, “The flight, marketed as FlyNYON, was designed to allow passengers to take photos of the city’s landmarks while extending their legs outside the helicopter. For the flight, Liberty removed the helicopter’s two right doors and front left door and locked the left sliding door in the open position.”

The crash of the Airbus AS350 was traced to the use of a passenger safety harness.  “Investigators determined that during the flight the tail of the front passenger’s tether, which connected his NYONair-provided harness to the helicopter, caught on the helicopter’s fuel shutoff lever, resulting in a loss of engine power at an altitude of 1,900 feet. The pilot then successfully ditched the helicopter into the river,” according to the NTSB report. The board is also recommending modification of the floor-mounted fuel-shutoff valve to prevent inadvertent activation. 

During the accident sequence, the pilot deployed the flotation system, but the floats did not inflate properly. After contact with the water, the AS350 rolled over and submerged. The pilot escaped but “the five passengers, each fitted with a NYONair-provided harness/tether system—secured with two locking carabiners—were not able to detach the restraints before or after becoming submerged upside down in the dark, 40-degree water, drowning as a result,” reads the NTSB report.

After the 2018 accident, the FAA did respond, but it’s not enough for the NTSB. “While the FAA issued an emergency order that required operators to demonstrate the ability of restraints to be quickly released, the NTSB remains concerned that the very use of any supplemental restraints could interfere with aircraft operations or hamper the escape of passengers during an emergency.”

The NTSB also cited the manufacturer of the flotation system for excessive control force to achieve full inflation of the floats. “Subsequent tests by investigators found a force exceeding 58 lbs. was needed to pull the activation handle hard enough aft to discharge the second reservoir,” said the NTSB.

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KITPLANES Editor in Chief Marc Cook has been in aviation journalism for more than 30 years. He is a 4000-hour instrument-rated, multi-engine pilot with experience in nearly 150 types. He’s completed two kit aircraft, an Aero Designs Pulsar XP and a Glasair Sportsman 2+2, and currently flies a 2002 GlaStar.

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  1. In my opinion sightseeing tour operators and their entry level pilots are at the bottom of the pecking order of Aviation operations. Not much different than the illegal car service drivers hustling at JFK.
    Prabably even have the FAA local boss in their pockets. No different than than their cozy relationships with Boeing and the greedy Airline bosses

    • Obviously you never read NTSB reports. One was about a three man crew with thousands of flying hours when they were on final to land in Florida at night when one of three landing gear lights didn’t turn on. Each landing gear has a light to indicate when its down and locked. With one light off, the captain, co pilot and flight engineer became obsessed with troubleshooting with the flight on auto pilot. One of the crew inadvertently kicked off AP and the airplane descended slowly. No one was flying, monitoring instruments. Obsessed with troubleshooting a burned out light bulb, the plane crashed into the everglades. This crash was determined as pilot error. You can find the NTSB report or watch a televised version of it.

      No pilot deliberately puts passengers or themselves in harm’s way. Crashes have a way of pointing out what not to do and this tour flight ended poorly. Lessons can be learned from this tragedy and perhaps measures to prevent this has already occurred.

      There’s another NTSB report of a recent NYC helicopter crashing into a building in foggy conditions. The lone pilot was attempting to takeoff from the east side heliport and return to New Jersey. He took off and found himself in low level fog, considered as imc. He had thousands of hours flying but wasn’t instrument rated to fly in imc. He flew onto a rooftop below 700 feet in fog. The final report has yet to determine the cause of this crash.

  2. Of course, the location of the fuel SOV caused the flame out in the first place. Why BOTH floats didn’t inflate is puzzling.
    The punishment to close the doors for the tens of thousands of future passengers is NOT justified!
    My take