Helicopter Crash in NYC’s East River Kills Five, Raises Safety Questions About Tourist Flights


Helicopter Crash in NYC's East River Kills Five, Raises Safety Questions About Tourist Flights

Helicopter Crash in NYC's East River Kills Five, Raises Safety Questions About Tourist Flights

Five passengers were killed when a Eurocopter AS350 helicopter crashed in New York City’s East River Sunday night around 7 p.m. “The pilot freed himself. The other five did not,” said Robert A. Nigro, commissioner of the Fire Department of New York. An eyewitness video, posted to Twitter, shows the aircraft hitting the river before it begins moving onto its side, the rotors slapping at the water.

Pilot Richard Vance told officials that a passenger’s piece of luggage may have hit the emergency fuel shutoff button, causing the crash, CNN reports. Luggage is not typically allowed inside “flightseeing” helicopters, according to Liberty Helicopters, which operated the flight. This particular trip was a charter operation for a photo shoot, said James P. O’Neill, commissioner of the New York Police Department.

In a distress call to LaGuardia’s control tower, released Monday morning, Vance can be heard saying, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday… engine failure.” About a minute and a half later, another pilot can be heard informing LaGuardia, “It appears the aircraft is inverted in the water.” The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.

“We are focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and on fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB investigations,” reads a statement from Liberty Helicopters. “These agencies have asked us to respect the investigative process by referring all press inquiries to them for any further comment.” Liberty has been operating charter flights since 1986, according to the company, and unfortunately, this isn’t the company’s first crash. We answer a few of the questions that have come up since the crash.

Are sightseeing flights safe?
Generally, yes. The last crash of a tourist helicopter in New York occurred on June 30, 2013, when a Bell Helicopter 206 operated by New York Helicopter Charter suffered an engine failure and crashed in the Hudson River. There were no injuries to the five people aboard, including the pilot, according to the final report from the NTSB about the incident. In 2011, three of the four passengers in a privately owned Bell Helicopter 206B died after the aircraft crashed in the Hudson River; another passenger and the pilot survived.

Have any Liberty Helicopters aircraft crashed in the past?
Yes, on August 8, 2009, when a Eurocopter AS350BA helicopter operated by Liberty collided with a Piper airplane, killing all nine people aboard both aircraft, according to an NTSB report. Previously, a Liberty aircraft collided with another helicopter shortly after takeoff at New York’s West 30th Street Heliport on March 22, 2008. The NTSB determined that “the pilot’s inadequate visual lookout” was “the probable cause” of the incident, in which nobody was injured.

What kind of helicopter was it that crashed?
The Eurocopter AS350 is a popular model with more than 3,500 made to date. “The AS350 AStar is a single-engine workhorse with the best performance in its category,” Liberty Helicopters says on its website. “Built and certified in the United States, this cost-effective helicopter accommodates five to six passengers in all forward-facing seats.”

What kind of safety equipment do helicopters carry?
Some helicopters now use Emergency Floatation Systems that can be deployed in the event of a ditching or crash on water. These airbag-like devices are attached to helicopter skids and, once activated, create buoyancy to keep aircraft afloat; they are available for the AS350. “All of our aircraft are equipped with flotation devices on the skids for flights over water and you will be issued an FAA-approved safety life vest that you will wear around your waist comfortably during the flight,” says Manhattan Helicopters, another operator of tourist flights in the New York area. It’s not yet clear if the helicopter that crashed had a floatation system.

How can you be sure the helicopter you’re riding on is safe?
Ask questions: What kind of safety equipment is carried on board? How many hours of flight experience does the pilot have? Ask if the helicopter operator is a member, as Liberty Helicopters is, of the industry group TOPS, which advocates for safer “flightseeing” tours. “In a typical year, professional helicopter tour operators in the U.S. fly some 100,000 tour hours, of which about 85,000 hours are flown by TOPS members,” the organization says. “TOPS members have a cumulative safety record much better than that of general aviation at large. For example, during 2003, TOPS members experienced 1.13 accidents per 100,000 air tour hours, compared with 9.98 accidents per 100,000 flying hours for the civil helicopter fleet at large.”


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