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.