East River Crash: A High Price For Cool Photos

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As Monday’s tragic helicopter accident in the East River vividly shows, ditching in a rotorcraft is a low-probability, high-consequence event. The reason for this is that helicopters, with their roof-mounted power trains, have a high center of mass and they always turn over, flood quickly and sink.

Because of these dismal survival aspects, many helicopters are equipped with skid-mounted float systems designed to be inflated pre-impact to provide buoyancy and a righting moment. As the video we’ve all seen by now clearly shows, the floats failed to do this for reasons that will only become evident when the accident investigation is completed. I’m not going to speculate on the why or the how.

But I am offering a thought on what kind of risk the passengers thought they were assuming. And my guess is they had no clue. New to me in the wake of this accident is that the passengers were doing a “doors-off” photo tour of the New York skyline, in which the aircraft is flown with the doors open so the passengers can dangle their feet out the door and snap photos. I’m including an example here, taken from the website of the company selling the tours. Doors-off flights are apparently a thing now.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I have a lot of experience flying in airplanes with doors open and have launched myself through them several thousand times. So I’m not gonna go all Uncle Melvin on the risks involved. If you wanna do it, step right to the front of the line. But there’s a pernicious corner of the risk envelope here that I don’t think these passengers could possibly grasp.

In order to let the customers dangle their body parts into the picture frame, in addition to standard seatbelts, they’re also strapped in with a parachute-type harness with a single carabiner restraint in the back connected to a tether, according to a New York Times article. For obvious reasons, it’s not a quick release, but uses a screw-type carabiner closure. Because of this, the passengers are shown a safety briefing video and equipped with a knife—likely a web-cutter type—to free themselves in an emergency.

If this doesn’t cause your jaw to drop to the floor, you’re not paying attention. Refer to the second sentence above. If they’re not equipped with skid floats or the floats fail, a ditched helicopter will always invert and flood rapidly. Without doors, it will flood right now. As I learned in a safety course I took at Survival Systems on how to exit ditched helicopters, even a trained occupant will struggle with what’s known as “cold water gasp,” the involuntary intake of breath when exposed rapidly to cold water.

The East River was 40 degrees or colder on Sunday. An untrained, gasping passenger would have had little chance to even consider using a knife to saw through a tether attached from behind. I spent a full day getting cold and wet in a dunkable fuselage simulator and I’m pretty sure I could not do this, even though I could egress the fuselage OK from normal harnesses. Watching a video on how to do it would, in my view, be woefully inadequate.

Just for the record, such training has three simple key points: Wait until the aircraft stops moving, use a reference point like your knee to find the door release handle, place a hand outside the opening for reference, then release the belt and get out. I did that course 15 years ago, but I still remember it. Here’s a good video we shot on the training.

What sustains a company like Survival Systems, in part, is that the oil industry requires workers to take such courses before they ever set foot on a helicopter headed for the offshore rigs. Even at that, the industry has lost lots of people in helicopter crashes and the survivors tell harrowing tales. Here’s one from a North Sea worker: “The helicopter filled with water, instantly. The door buckled on the left-hand side and none of us had a chance to pull our rebreathers out, get our hoods on, nothing like that. And as the water came up to here" – he indicates his chin – "and I took my last breath, I could see people floating around. As soon as my head was covered with water, I looked down and pulled the tab on the window and it just came to bits in my hand. So I hit it with my elbow a couple of times. Nothing. And then I punched it – I think I punched it three times – and all of a sudden it went pop and away it went.”

Judging risk and whether to take it is an intensely personal thing and for most of us, it is a moving target. What you do one day, you might not do the next if some single point consideration is different. Personally, I have no desire to fly around New York in an open-door helicopter. I can think of better things to spend money on. And even though I suffer the same over-confidence in the reliability of turbine aircraft that so many of us do, they still quit from time to time. But getting into one with a knife to slice a tether attached to my back as the only means of extraction isn’t a survival plan, it’s a delusion. My skydiver friends will want me to mention a better approach: the same kind of three-ring system we use to cut away malfunctioned mains to clear the way for reserve deployment. 

Last, a comment on word choice. When I wrote the initial story based on the video, my colleague Mary Grady chided me for using “mishap” in the headline rather than “crash.” She reasoned that mishap conveyed the wrong connotation. Too soft. But I used it for a reason. An autorotation in a helicopter is not a crash, it’s a purposeful emergency procedure and, if done right, a skillful management of finite rotor energy.

I’m not qualified to judge whether the auto was done right or not, but the touchdown itself didn’t strike me as a crash. I tried to use “hard autorotation” but it didn’t fit in two lines. I re-edited it with the word “accident.” When you lose five people, there’s no question that this word applies.

Comments (23)

We won't know until the investigation is complete. I too have gone through dunk tank training and it's extremely disorienting. This coming from someone who was in the water a lot as a red Cross water safety instructor, life guard and competitive swimmer. We were taught to find a pocket of air for the cold reflex and follow the bubbles. It's extremely easy to swim down, not up to the surface. In the video that helicopter hit really fast for an autoration. If people were sitting on the floor the shock would have been pretty severe.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | March 13, 2018 10:26 PM    Report this comment

The lawsuits cometh.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 13, 2018 10:58 PM    Report this comment

I wonder how the PIC is gonna feel for the rest of his life? Reading elsewhere in Avweb, I see where the (emergency?) fuel valve may have been inadvertently moved? As soon as I heard the pilot was the only survivor, I wondered why. And I wondered why none of the passengers egressed and what the reason was. Now I know. NOT good.

I've watched videos of US Navy 'dunk' training and it appears pretty realistic and scary to me. Even there, some participants have to be rescued by safety divers. I'm sure we're now going to get some extra "help" from Independence Ave ... and -- this time -- rightly so.

Beyond that ... so much for inflatable EM floats located on the bottom of a machine with both a high center of mass and a strong rotating mass. So what's THAT supposed to do ... keep the thing from sinking but upside down ... with pax belted in trying to cut their belts off with a knife. That's nuts! Even with the doors on, it probably would have sunk pretty fast anyhow ... per your north sea story.

Off topic slightly, the other day Avweb had a story about still another flying car with a rotor blade and three wheels ... in a tricycle gear config. I think it was Airbus ... can't find it now. That machine is gonna have the same high mass problem under some conditions. In a tricycle gear airplane, there is an imaginary axis between the nosewheel and either main gear. In a strong quartering tailwind, it can blow over on that axis. I can speak first hand ... I once was nearly blown over in a T-34. Now add a high center of rotating mass -- as shown here -- and you have a recipe for disaster. Let's just see. That's why the old three wheeled ATV's are no longer produced and have been replaced by quads. Rollover accidents.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | March 14, 2018 6:36 AM    Report this comment

Gyroscopes are interesting to study. If you spin one up with axis vertical, then tip slightly forward, it will immediately roll to the side. So all they needed was a little retarding force low (on the skids) as they moved forward to tip it over.

Try it.

Posted by: Sam Strohl | March 14, 2018 8:37 AM    Report this comment

The auto, as auto's go, wasn't that bad. There was enough of a "plop", at the end, and enough forward motion to submerge a float and tip the machine before the float could resurface. I've never used floats, but it would seem a near-perfect autorotation would be required to prevent this from happening.

Posted by: Mike Massimini | March 14, 2018 8:56 AM    Report this comment

Mike, your comment caused me to think about what Sam said above. Perhaps the righting moment of the float wasn't enough to overcome the rather powerful precession energy still left in the rotor. And once it's over 30 degrees or so, it's probably not coming back. Seems like it's a dynamic rollover moment.

Always possible that the float failed, I suppose. There's a picture of the aircraft being hauled out and all the floats are still attached. Can't know if they were still properly inflated.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 14, 2018 9:09 AM    Report this comment

Actually, looking more closely, BOTH floats submerged - one came up. Whether that's due to the inertial forces mentioned or some defect I just don't know. Both units were retaining some pressure when the machine was recovered.

Posted by: Mike Massimini | March 14, 2018 9:13 AM    Report this comment

There are many, many situations we live through, unremarked, where if some key thing had happened we would have been dead. We ignore these situations simply because it didn't happen, even though intellectually we may know the danger existed. In terms of absolute danger I don't really think the basic idea of open-door sightseeing flight is all that outrageous and can't view the participants as being stupidly reckless.

What obviously strikes Paul and all of us about this particular situation is the realization, in retrospect, that given the unusual but entirely foreseeable storm of "gotchas" that the passengers were subjected to - sudden and totally disorentating chaos while submerged in icy water plus necessity for instant and precise yet difficult corrective reaction plus virtually no training or preparation - they had zero chance for survival. And we can easily imagine ourselves being in their place.

Obviously, the standard knee jerk reaction of the great nanny who rules us all will be to ban all such operations. I vote for a more measured approach.

Posted by: John Wilson | March 14, 2018 9:55 AM    Report this comment

What struck me is the thought that this was a (presumably) FAA-approved restraint system with seemingly no means of quick release except for a hook-knife. Forget a water-landing - what was the thinking in the event of hard landing (on land) followed by a cabin fire?

Is this the standard procedure for true professional photographers filming through open doors?

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | March 14, 2018 12:00 PM    Report this comment

I've flown an R22 with the doors off (working on my heli rating), but that was done for the purpose of better airflow in the cockpit (it gets to be a greenhouse with the doors on during the spring/summer/fall), so I'm not trying to dangle my feet outside either. I suspect that the passengers had no real idea of the risks involved, and honestly, I probably wouldn't have either since I've never used such non-quick-release fasteners.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | March 14, 2018 12:08 PM    Report this comment

Excellent explanation, Paul. Helicopters with flotation devices on the skids have two stable positions: Stable one (upright) and stable two (inverted). During the early space programs, NASA spent a great deal of time designing the various space capsules so that they would be self-righting into stable one. Helicopter designers don't really have that option, unless they want to move the engine(s) down below the passenger compartment. Once the helicopter tips beyond a certain point - either by rotor precession or a less than perfect landing, it will transition to stable two regardless. Stable two is still a desired position, because the helicopter stays near the surface so that escaping passengers can reach the surface quickly. Without flotation, a flooded helicopter would sink so quickly escape would be nearly impossible even for trained crews.

As Paul also mentions, even if you actually practice evacuation, getting out of an inverted and flooded aircraft is challenging. Add near freezing water, being disoriented and the inevitable panic, and escaping standard seatbelts would be difficult. I suspect the pilot managed to get out because he was the only person not wearing a retention harness. One other point that may be a factor is that, when one of the rotors hits the water, the blades violently separate from the hub, tranferring that shaking to the airframe and possubly stunning the passengers. The NTSB report on this one will be very interesting.

Posted by: John McNamee | March 14, 2018 12:09 PM    Report this comment

Paul, as you said, it's easy to be too confident of turbine engines' reliability. They are amazingly reliable - unless they're starved of fuel. Anybody know where the emergency fuel shutoff is located in the ES350? Given the criticality of that control, procedures need to be in place to avoid inadvertent shutoff. Yikes!

Posted by: BRUCE POULTON | March 14, 2018 3:23 PM    Report this comment

Kris - Yes, hanging out in a harness is SOP. If you look up cinematographer Neal Fredericks on IMDB, you'll see that he was the sole fatality when the Cessna he was shooting background shots from went down in the Florida keys. The plane ditched well and the pilot plus the other three pax were unharmed.

They don't know why Neal didn't get out, but one theory is that he was tangled in his safety harness. (Another theory is that he tried to save the camera.)

Posted by: Rush Strong | March 14, 2018 3:48 PM    Report this comment

With regard to the risk calculus of a quick release system, I can see the logic against it. Untrained passengers would likely find a way to defeat that--Murphy is everywhere and is an optimist--and thus the spectre of one tumbling out into the river.

What are the odds? Maybe one in 1000? On the other hand, with your oh-so-reliable turbine helicopter, the odds are one in 100,000 or some other high number. So it makes sense to lash them into the aircraft like Ahab to the whale. Except one in 100,000 isn't zero, so you give them the knife in the faint hope that it at least offers a desperation option.

The quick release on skydiving rigs consists of a soft fabric handle Velcro'd strongly to the front lift web of the harness. It connects through two cables that run to the three-ring system that connects the parachute risers to the harness. It takes a tug to part that Velcro, then a light yank to release the risers. I've used it twice in 3000 jumps, the last time in 2006.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 14, 2018 4:09 PM    Report this comment

"Is this the standard procedure for true professional photographers filming through open doors?"

An an ex-Navy Aircrew Photographer we did not even have a hook knife. We just hung out the door being restrained by only a gunners belt. Should have had one on a few cameras when they were accidentally kicked over board. Oh well, just order up a replacement camera.

I did have a Dzus key however.

I suspect it was the cold water that got to the passengers.

Posted by: Jeff Land | March 14, 2018 4:31 PM    Report this comment

Add compacted side-riggers with inflating floats to blow out sideways, say 20 feet, to provide a larger moment arm (or base) to keep the helicopter upright.

This would seem pretty easy to setup and test, using rocket or explosive charges, probably not even as large as in a ballistic parachute.

Wish I had a helicopter and test lab...

Posted by: Sam Strohl | March 14, 2018 4:31 PM    Report this comment

I would never let anyone strap me into an aircraft where I had to use a knife to cut myself out of a harness to get out.

Posted by: FILL CEE | March 14, 2018 7:22 PM    Report this comment

...and this is why we don't want you to go anywhere soon Paul. Nice write up and analysis by all.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | March 15, 2018 4:09 AM    Report this comment

"Yes, hanging out in a harness is SOP"

"We just hung out the door being restrained by only a gunners belt"

Sorry, I should've written my question better. I figured it was normal for photographers to have a harness when working in an open door. My question should've been: Is it normal for that harness to NOT have a quick-release? Is it normal for the harness to require a knife to get free in an emergency?

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | March 15, 2018 5:32 AM    Report this comment

"A High Price For Cool Photos"

We need to ban these assault camera phones..

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 15, 2018 6:55 AM    Report this comment

I agree with Thomas Cooke. Educational, entertaining, stimulating and challenging essay and comments. A magnet for readers like me. Kudos to Paul and all.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | March 15, 2018 9:12 AM    Report this comment

"Add compacted side-riggers with inflating floats to blow out sideways, say 20 feet, to provide a larger moment arm (or base) to keep the helicopter upright."

Helicopter pilots are taught to intentionally roll the helicopter over toward the advancing blades (usually left on U.S. helicopters, often right on foreign helicopters) to stop the rotor and prevent people being injured if they do get out of the helicopter.

Note that in the video, the helicopter touches down level, THEN rolls.

Posted by: jim hanson | March 16, 2018 11:14 AM    Report this comment

"Helicopter pilots are taught to intentionally roll the helicopter over toward the advancing blades (usually left on U.S. helicopters, often right on foreign helicopters) to stop the rotor and prevent people being injured if they do get out of the helicopter."

Thanks for the insight.

Posted by: Sam Strohl | March 16, 2018 8:04 PM    Report this comment

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