After 2018 fatal East River crash, feds will probe doorless helicopter flights

A crane lifts a sightseeing helicopter out of the East River on March 12, 2018, following a deadly crash.
A crane lifts a sightseeing helicopter out of the East River on March 12, 2018, following a deadly crash. Photo Credit: (Credit too long, see caption)/Bryan Bedder

More than a year after a deadly East River chopper crash, the U.S. Department of Transportation is launching a “deep-dive” investigation on doors-off helicopter flights. 

All five passengers died when a doorless sightseeing helicopter they were on plunged into the river and capsized on March 12, 2018; their safety harnesses kept them from escaping the aircraft.

The FAA banned doors-off flights with safety restraints that couldn’t be “released quickly” shortly after the crash, and Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand called for a federal investigation a few days later.

On Thursday, the lawmakers announced that the DOT’s Inspector General would investigate how doors-off helicopter flights and their “dangerous harness systems” secured Federal Aviation Administration approval to begin with.

“These doors-off helicopter tours may offer an Instagram-worthy experience, but they have shown they can put passengers in insta-danger,” Schumer said in a statement.

“This formal and deep-dive investigation comes while the doors-off flights continue to occur by FlyNYON, at deep summer discounts to boot, so it is my great hope that this investigation moves swiftly and with full cooperation from everyone involved,” he added.

FlyNYON booked the deadly 2018 flight operated by Liberty Helicopters. FlyNYON notes in its website’s FAQ section that its sightseeing helicopters “are maintained to strict FAA regulatory standards,” adding that “passengers and their equipment are safely secured and double checked prior to take off.

"We appreciate and stand ready to support smart actions that allow for enhanced helicopter safety and to grow even more jobs in the greater New York City area," a FlyNyon spokesperson said. "FlyNyon stands ready to work with anyone who wants to pass common sense rules that create more jobs and ensures safety."

The investigation will be conducted in consultation with the National Transportation Safety Board, and will examine how the FAA reviews and approves “supplemental restraints” for doors-off helicopter flights, the DOT’s Office of Inspector General said in a memorandum dated Tuesday.

It will also look at how the FAA oversees “company use of supplemental restraints,” according to the memorandum.

In a statement on Thursday, the FAA said it would “cooperate” with the investigation.

The audit, which is expected to launch at the end of the month, “will help identify any safety loopholes to help protect future passengers,” Gillibrand said in her own statement.

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