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Pilots Warned of Safety Issues Long Before NYC Helicopter Crash

Pilots involved with FlyNYON have come forward-despite worries about being fired or blacklisted in the industry-to say that they repeatedly raised safety concerns with the flight tourism company before the fatal March 11, 2018, helicopter crash that killed five people.

The pilots, who have sought whistle-blower protection to avoid negative repercussions for speaking out, referenced multiple occasions in which they allegedly communicated their concerns to the company and felt those concerns were dismissed. One of the issues the pilots raised was over the use of non-FAA-approved safety harnesses that were put together with "off-the-shelf components."

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a preliminary report on the deadly crash. The report details the helicopter pilot's attempts to free the passenger beside him from his harness. The report also indicates that a loose tether from a passenger may have tripped the emergency fuel shut-off lever.

Pilots for Liberty Helicopters Told FlyNYON "We Are Setting Ourselves Up for Failure" 

Pilots with Liberty Helicopters, who owns and operates the helicopters used by FlyNYON for its tours over Manhattan, allegedly complained about safety issues months before their aircraft went down in the East River, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.

Emails, interviews and other internal documents show a string of vocalized concerns in the weeks leading up to one of New York's deadliest helicopter crashes. They also suggest a pattern of dismissiveness from executives at FlyNYON in a prime example of corporate negligence.

Among the pilots' reported concerns were those regarding the safety gear aboard the helicopters. Pilots say they reached out in hopes that FlyNYON would invest in better equipment. One of the pilots who came forward but was not identified in the report said in an e-mail to the higher-ups that "we are setting ourselves up for failure" by using harnesses that do not always fit properly. The pilot offered recommendations for equipment that would be safer, including tools that would enable passengers to free themselves from their harnesses more quickly if there was a crash.

FlyNYON's chief executive, Patrick K. Day, responded by e-mail to pilots on the matter in January.

"Let me be clear, this isn't a safety issue with the harnesses," Day said.

The NTSB has yet to say whether the harnesses played a role in the deaths of the passengers who were trapped inside the helicopter and drowned, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has banned such harnesses in the wake of the accident.

Concerns Over Helicopter Harness Safety Included the Use of Zip Ties and Painters Tape 

The report outlines repeated instances of pilots asking FlyNYON to upgrade its harness system, which they say was problematic in many areas:

  • Women and children were often too small for the harnesses, the report details, but instead of purchasing new harnesses (the FAA had approved a different, adjustable harness for some uses) or investigating a long-term method for adjustments, FlyNYON advised staff members to use zip ties to tighten the harnesses.
  • Both the harnesses and the FAA-approved seatbelts that were installed in the helicopters occasionally unbuckled in flight. This did not release the full system but was concerning to the pilots, so FlyNYON staff members used something that Day referred to as "NYON blue safety tape," but that was simply blue painters tape.
  • Passengers' ability to get out of the harnesses was another concern. Pilots warned it would be challenging for a passenger to reach the tether where the harness attached to the helicopter and even harder to disconnect the carabiner there. A seatbelt cutter was provided to enable passengers to slice through the harness if necessary, but the material used in the FlyNYON harnesses was hard to cut, and even employees had trouble doing it in a test. In February FlyNYON began a discussion about new cutters, but it is unclear if they ever decided to order them.

Fears of Retaliation Led Pilots to Seek Whistle-Blower Protection 

To speak out without fear of retaliation, the pilots are seeking whistle-blower protection and have retained a lawyer to represent them. According to that lawyer, the pilots from Liberty Helicopters believe that being honest with the NTSB and FAA will result in retaliation and could severely harm their careers.

The identities of the pilots have been kept confidential, but their lawyer has said that some are currently employed by the company while others were employed in the past.

FlyNYON Denies Allegations, Continues to Sell Doors-Off Helicopter Tour Tickets 

FlyNYON has been dismissive of the pilot's claims, saying that The New York Times report was "fake news" and telling the newspaper that it was up to the pilots to handle safety issues. The company maintains if there were issues that pilots "deemed detrimental to the safety of the operation, they should have ceased operations and addressed the issue with Liberty management."

In a statement to CBS New York, FlyNYON was unambiguous about their stance.

"We firmly deny the allegation that anyone at FlyNYON did not heed issues raised by pilots, and that we failed to respond to safety concerns. FlyNYON takes great pride in the safety of our operation."

The FAA banned doors-off helicopter tours following the crash, but FlyNYON is still advertising those tours on its social media and even selling tickets for them on its website, saying the flights will resume shortly. Customers who purchased tickets for those tours say they haven't received refunds, despite repeatedly contacting FlyNYON.

NTSB Report Includes Pilot's Recount of Fatal New York Helicopter Crash 

The NTSB released its preliminary report. In it, Richard Vance, the pilot and sole survivor of the crash, talks investigators through what he saw, heard and felt as the helicopter went down.

Vance talks about going through the safety briefings (including some on cutting the harnesses) with the passengers several times and an instance during the flight when he saw that a passenger's restraint (not the harness) had come loose and was dangling until Vance instructed the man to buckle it again.

During the descent into the East River, as Vance was "committed to impact" he reached down for the emergency fuel shutoff level and discovered it was in the off position, with part of the tether for the passenger beside him underneath the lever. He quickly adjusted the lever to on and noticed a positive change in the helicopter, but it was too late, and he prepared the aircraft to crash into the river.

Once in the river, the helicopter quickly began to fill with water-possibly because the floats on the right landing gear skid had not properly inflated. Before unbuckling his FAA-approved restraint, Vance reached over to try to unscrew the carabiner attachment to the helicopter for the passenger beside him. His efforts were in vain, and Vance had to free himself from the helicopter. He crawled onto the portion of the aircraft that was floating and waited for help. None of the passengers escaped from their harnesses.

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