The Federal Aviation Administration today ordered the halt of open-door helicopter flights that use passenger harnesses without quick-release capability, less than a week after such a flight ended with the drowning deaths of five people.
Last Sunday evening, a doors-off helicopter catering to photographers and tourists crashed into the East River of New York City, killing all five passengers who were harnessed to the quickly sinking aircraft. The pilot, who wore a conventional quick-release restraint, survived, but the passengers had no easy way to free themselves. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, and it will likely issue a detailed analysis in about a year.
The directive marks an unusually quick reaction by the FAA to prevent similar tragedies, and it appears to be a direct reaction to methods used by the two companies involved in the fatal flight, New Jersey-based FlyNYON, which markets such trips to professional and amateur photographers, and charter service Liberty Helicopters, which owns the aircraft.
“A lot of operators may do the occasional doors-off tour or photo flight,” says commercial helicopter pilot and instructor Elan Head, special projects editor of industry magazine Vertical. “But many of these are done without supplemental restraints, as passengers just stay belted in their seats. The FAA’s announcement seems to target FlyNYON specifically, since the focus is on restraints that cannot be released quickly in an emergency, rather than open doors, per se.”
The FAA’s new order also indirectly targets a growing social media trend: the taking and sharing of dramatic aerial photographs of cities and natural environments. FlyNYON was one of the first operators to capitalize on the genre. Its own Instagram account has 132,000 followers, and the company has many relationships with even more successful Instagrammers and professional photographers. For the less social-savvy passengers, its employees [make a big deal] (https://www.flynyon.com/) of the “shoe selfie,” where you take a photo of the city below with your feet dangling in the frame.
Indeed, much of the company’s recent growth—it has expanded operations to Las Vegas, San Francisco, Miami, and Los Angeles—came from these open-door, photography-focused flights that capitalize on such social media trends. It also makes a degree of business sense for the company, since it enables the operator to sell individual seats for photo flights rather than having to rent out the entire aircraft for individual assignments. “This type of model is becoming popular in the aviation industry as a way to maximize the use of charter aircraft,” Head says.
The NTSB investigation will also look at operational details beyond the harnessing of passengers, including the breadth and content of the preflight safety briefings and the fundamental assumption that inexperienced passengers can even be expected to evacuate a crashed helicopter in the water in the first place. The industry overall has long wrestled with the notion of consumer-oriented open-door flights—the practice is common for industrial and commercial purposes—and this accident and other recent tragedies, including a fiery, fatal crash in the Grand Canyon last month, has spurred them onto more focused examination of all their safety protocols. Just today, the Virginia-based Helicopter Association International announced it would organize a working group to establish guidelines to prevent similar accidents in the future. “Our goal is, and always will be, zero accidents in the helicopter industry,” group president Matt Zuccaro said in a statement.
There’s no reason to believe the East River crash will permanently halt aviation’s open-door policy, but until investigators have a handle on all the factors that contributed to the deaths of five enthusiastic passengers, helicopter occupants—at least those without more advanced harnesses—will have to keep their hands and feet safely inside the craft.