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Helicopter flights without doors need thorough investigation and rules rewrite, say Sens. Schumer and Gillibrand

First responders had to cut the harnesses of the victims of the fatal helicopter crash in the East River on March 11.

New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand

New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are calling for an investigation into "doors-off" helicopter flights, such as the one that crashed into the East River on March 11.

Following the fatal East River helicopter crash earlier this month, Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are calling for a federal investigation into how such flights ever got off the ground.

The officials are requesting a probe into how “doors-off” flights — a popular sightseeing option during which a helicopter’s doors are removed, or opened, to allow for unobstructed photography — received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. Five passengers drowned on March 11 during a doors-off flight after the copter crashed into the East River. The flight’s pilot, Richard Vance, survived.

“These ‘doors-off’ helicopter tours may have offered an Instagram-worthy experience but their harnesses appear to put passengers in insta-danger,” said Schumer in a statement Sunday. “While I applaud the FAA for quickly moving to halt these types of helicopter flights, I am demanding to know how they were allowed to take off in the first place.”

Schumer is calling on the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Transportation Safety Board to conduct the investigation into the FAA’s policies and procedures, as well as a review of the harness system used during the flights. The harnesses allow passengers to lean out of the helicopter to capture photographs.

Gary Robb, an aviation lawyer representing the parents of one of the passengers who died in Sunday’s crash, described the harnesses and the helicopter involved as a “death trap” in a lawsuit filed Wednesday against the company involved in the crash, Liberty Helicopters, pilot Vance and helicopter tour company FlyNYON.

The harness system used in the American Eurocopter Corp. aircraft has come under scrutiny as firefighters said they had to cut the belt system to extract the passengers after the helicopter overturned in the river.

Vance told police on March 11 that he believed a strap of some sort got entangled with a fuel shut-off lever, severing the fuel supply to the engine.

A definitive cause for the crash has not yet been identified.

Schumer and Gillibrand, in a joint letter penned to DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel III and NTSB Vice Chair T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, said they believe the incident could be a symptom of the larger issue of outdated FAA regulations.

Such “doors-off” flights like Sunday’s, which was considered a commercial flight for aerial photography, have operated under FAA rules established before the rise of smartphones, GoPro and other personal recording devices that have boosted the flights’ popularity, according to experts.

The U.S. DOT pointed to the FAA statement issued on Friday announcing an immediate end to some doors-off flights across the country, with the FAA stating it would “conduct a top-to-bottom review of its rules governing these flights to examine any potential misapplication that could create safety gaps for passengers.”

“Operators, pilots, and consumers should be aware of the hazard presented by supplemental restraint devices in the event of an emergency evacuation during ‘doors-off’ flights,” the FAA said in the statement. “The FAA will order operators and pilots to take immediate actions to control or mitigate this risk. Until then, the FAA will order no more ‘doors-off’ operations that involve restraints that cannot be released quickly in an emergency.”

Eric Weiss, a spokesman for the NTSB, which is currently leading the investigation into the incident, said in a statement that “as with all NTSB investigations, it will examine all aspects of safety in these types of operations.”

With Anthony M. Destefano

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