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NTSB asks for ban on helicopter harnesses after fatal NYC crash

Five people who died in East River crash were unable to free themselves from safety restraints after helicopter flipped over, authorities say.

Emily Gibson, a Survival Factors Investigator with the

Emily Gibson, a Survival Factors Investigator with the NTSB's Office of Aviation Safety, on March 13, 2018, documents the restraint systems within the cabin of the Liberty Helicopters' helicopter that crashed in the East River last week. Photo Credit: NTSB Photo by Chris O'Neil

While its investigation of the fatal East River helicopter crash March 11 continues, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a strong recommendation Monday that aviation authorities ban the use of passenger safety harnesses that are difficult to release on commercial flights.

The five passengers who died when the helicopter landed on the river and flipped over were held by the safety harnesses in addition to standard seat belts, the NTSB said. FDNY rescuers said they had to cut the passengers free of the harnesses to recover their bodies.

The NTSB issued its recommendation to the Federal Aviation Administration, which Friday issued an interim order barring “open door” helicopter flights from using the safety restraints. The FAA said the ban order will remain in place until the agency evaluates the issue.

In its news release Monday, the NTSB pointed out that the only survivor of the March 11 crash in the photo sightseeing flight was the pilot, Richard Vance, who was held in his seat with the standard seat belt system — part of the helicopter’s original equipment. “While we applaud the FAA’s intention to move forward on banning these types of doors-off flights, the FAA has not outlined how or when they plan to take action,’’ said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt in a prepared statement. “And definitive action needs to be taken.”

The standard restraint system in the AS350B2 helicopter that crashed had lap and over-the-shoulder belts that could be released by one hand motion, the NTSB stated. In addition, the aircraft had a harness system not installed by the helicopter manufacturer and comprised of off-the-shelf components provided to the passengers by FlyNYON, the company that ran the helicopter tour, the NTSB said.

“Under normal circumstances at the conclusion of each flight, FlyNYON personnel would release a locking carabiner located on the back of the passengers’ harnesses,” explained the NTSB, adding that passengers were briefed on how to cut the harnesses, which were not evaluated by the FAA.

A spokesman for FlyNYON didn’t reply to requests for comment on Monday.

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