Final seconds in ‘death trap’ helicopter
Pilots at a doors-off helicopter joy ride company operating in New York City repeatedly expressed their concerns about safety procedures but were ignored in the months before one of its craft crashed, killing all five tourists on board.
The FlyNyon doors-off experience, which allowed passengers to dangle their feet outside of the helicopter for a "shoe selfie", was a "death trap" according to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing into the matter on Tuesday.
The NTSB investigation into the accident, which occurred on March 11, 2018, concluded the crash was "survivable" but the tourists were unable to free themselves from their custom harnesses when the aircraft made an emergency landing on the East River and flipped upside down, drowning everyone on board except the pilot.
Stating the probable cause of the crash as the harness and tether, which got caught on the floor-mounted engine fuel shut off lever and resulted in the loss of engine power, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt told the Washington D.C. hearing: "The (harness and tether) contraption that FlyNyon rigged up turned a perfectly good helicopter into a death trap.
"And that is a fact. (The special harness) contributed to the passenger fatalities because it did not allow the passengers to quickly escape from the helicopter.
"There is no doubt in my mind that a contraption like this that was rigged up by FlyNyon impeded the ability of the passengers to escape, and to live."
The NTSB also revealed a series of other "egregious" failures by FlyNyon and the operator of the tours, Liberty Helicopters, including "deficient safety management that didn't adequately mitigate foreseeable risks associated with the harness tether system interfering with the floor mount controls and hindering passenger (escape)," as well as a company culture that prioritised profits over passenger and pilot safety.
HARNESSES "INAPPROPRIATE AND UNSAFE"
In order to prevent a passenger from falling out of the doors-off helicopter ride mid-flight, FlyNyon and Liberty Helicopters used harnesses that in the event of an emergency were required to be cut off the body with a tool attached to the harness.
But all five tourists on board helicopter N350LH were unable to free themselves from their harnesses. Footage from a GoPro camera mounted inside the aircraft showed the passengers trying to remove the harnesses as the cabin quickly filled with water.
"How do I cut this?" one passenger asked, according to a transcript of the video, 13 seconds before the helicopter was completely submerged. A passenger reached for a spot on his chest where a hook knife had been earlier. Another pulled at his harness. Another could be heard panting.
The only other way for passengers to free themselves was to undo a carabiner, but this was located in a difficult to reach place at the back - a decision by FlyNyon and Liberty Helicopters that was found to be "inappropriate and unsafe" by the investigation.
Both methods were "extremely difficult if not near impossible to do", the NTSB said.
"Oil workers who fly over water to get to rigs are trained on how to use harnesses (of this nature)," NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said.
"How was someone off the street expected to know how to use this and get out of it … in the 11 seconds it took for the helicopter to get submerged?"
"We know that the US military spends a huge amount of time and effort to train people with simulators to escape from helicopters without supplemental restraints (like this)," Chairman Sumwalt agreed.
A pre-flight safety video was meant to demonstrate to passengers how to free themselves in the event of an emergency, but the investigation found the safety video was inaccurate.
It showed the tether being cut with a knife connected to the harness, slicing through the material with ease. But the tether in the video was different to the one on board the accident helicopter, and it was more difficult to cut.
Also not factored into the cutting tool method was the fact that the passengers would have been in shock from the emergency landing, and the freezing temperature of the water they were sinking in (the ambient temperature that day was 6 degrees Celsius), meaning hypothermia began and their fine motor skills were impeded.
"The ability to manipulate … the restraints and the tether would have been difficult to accomplish in water of that temperature," a doctor told the NTSB hearing.
Disturbingly, it was found FlyNyon and Liberty Helicopters did no formal risk assessment of the harnesses.
PILOTS WHO RAISED CONCERNS 'SHUT DOWN'
Pilots operating flights for FlyNyon expressed safety concerns to management but were repeatedly shut down, the investigation found.
In a January 2018 pilots meeting - just two months before the crash - when safety concerns were raised, the CEO of FlyNyon firmly struck down their grievances.
Of the harnesses, one pilot told investigators she found it difficult to cut through with the knife, and said it took more than 30 seconds. This concern was ignored.
The Safety Officer from Liberty Helicopters said "absolutely" there was pressure from FlyNyon to operate in a manner the pilots felt was contrary to safety.
FlyNyon's CEO shrugged off pilots concerns and complained, via text, "the pilots can't get their snowflake feelings hurt."
There were several instances, it was revealed, when pilots decided to cancel a flight due to weather concerns - mainly very cold temperatures - and in response the FlyNyon CEO "threw a fit" saying the company couldn't afford to lose the money.
STAGGERING LACK OF OVERSIGHT
For a tourism operation, FlyNyon and Liberty Helicopters were subject to a surprisingly minimal amount of oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The investigation found they were able to avoid stricter federal safety regulations by classifying their offering as "professional photography" - not "sightseeing" - exploiting a loophole intended for newsgathering or film shoots, but not tourism.
Following interviews with FlyNyon and Liberty staff, the NTSB concluded the company knew it was skirting regulations, because the CEO and/or senior staff cautioned other staff not to "use words like 'air tour' or 'sightseeing', which could trigger … additional oversight by the FAA."
Personnel were warned "to be vigilant to (notice) people that asked too many questions and asked about tours or owners or management certificates or appeared to be the FAA, or anyone with a badge".
Issues have also been highlighted at the FAA. A seven-second video of how the special harness worked was all the FAA asked for to approve the unusual set-up - the harnesses were never seen in person, or tested for safety in the event of a crash.
In a decision that would lead to tragic consequences, a member of the FAA conducting a routine visit to FlyNyon in October 2017 described the set-up as "unorthodox" and the claim to be operating as "non-commercial" to be "highly questionable" and informed his or her manager, but no further action was taken.
"You assume as passengers that these operations are under a high level of scrutiny and there are safety measures put in place and the FAA required a testing of harnesses," member Homendy said at the hearing.
"That it is perfectly safe to have doors off operations from people just walking off the street … people (should) fully understand how egregious this operation was, and in my opinion still is today."
BUCKET LIST EXPERIENCE TURNS TO TRAGEDY
I confess I have a personal interest in this accident. In December 2017, three months before the crash, I took the same doors-off ride over New York City with FlyNyon in the very same helicopter that would end up plunging into the East River.
I can vividly recall the experience that should have been but a footnote in the lives of the young victims of the crash: Brian McDaniel, 26, a Dallas fire officer, his friend Trevor Cadigan, 26, a Dallas journalist who had recently moved to New York; Carla Vallejos Blanco, 29, an Argentinian tourist; Tristan Hill, 29, and Daniel Thompson, 34.
After taking off from the FlyNyon helipad across the Hudson River from Manhattan in New Jersey at 6.54pm, at 7.07pm the helicopter hit the East River on Manhattan's Upper East Side and deployed floats.
However, the floats did not deploy evenly, and the upright helicopter rolled and capsized in the freezing water in about 10 seconds.
I can close my eyes and picture what the victims saw in the last minutes of their lives; their awe as they saw world-famous icons from a new perspective: The Statue Of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge.
I can imagine how their sense of wonder turned to confusion, before the dawning realisation of the nightmare that was unfolding. It turns my stomach to look at the photos of myself smiling in the helicopter, with no idea how it could have - and eventually would - go so wrong.
'WE HAVE MADE CHANGES'
The NTSB unanimously made a number of recommendations based on the findings of the investigation, including a halt to doors-off helicopter flights that place passengers in supplemental passenger restraints until federal regulators can better evaluate the safety of the restraints.
The NTSB also urged the FAA to close the loophole that allows certain doors-off sightseeing flights to operate under an "aerial photography" exception to the tougher federal regulations and oversight that most commercial air tours operate under.
On its website, FlyNyon says it now uses an FAA-approved, industry-tested quick-release harness system on all doors-off flights, allowing "fast and simple exit in case of an emergency".
In a statement, the company said safety has always been its "first priority and we have made changes to our operations to help ensure an accident like this never happens again".