Months Before Deadly Crash, Helicopter Pilots Warned of Security Issues
For months prior to an open-sided helicopter capsized in the East River, drowning five passengers who had been strapped inside, pilots for the firm that operated the flight warned their bosses about harmful situations, like equipment that could make escape hard.
The pilots repeatedly requested much more suitable safety gear, with a single pilot writing in an e mail to firm management that “we are setting ourselves up for failure” by making use of occasionally poorly fitting harnesses. That exact same pilot made a series of suggestions — including 1 4 days prior to the fatal accident — for new tools that would enable passengers to more very easily free of charge themselves in case of an emergency, according to firm emails, other internal documents and interviews.
The internal documents reviewed by The New York Times indicate that executives for the business, FlyNYON, bristled at the pilots’ concerns, insisting that the operation, which provided the opportunity to snap selfies although leaning out over the city, was secure.
“Let me be clear, this isn’t a security issue with the harnesses,” Patrick K. Day, the chief executive of FlyNYON, stated in a January email exchange with pilots who had raised issues.
Mr. Day, in a statement to The Occasions, rejected the idea “that anybody at FlyNYON did not heed issues raised by pilots at Liberty Helicopter” — an affiliated firm that owned and operated the helicopters employed in FlyNYON flights — “and that we failed to respond to safety issues.”
Much less than two months after the e mail exchange, on March 11, a FlyNYON flight splashed in the East River right after losing energy and rapidly rolled more than, trapping its pilot and five passengers upside down in the frigid water.
The passengers were outfitted with some of the equipment that the pilots had raised concerns about — yellow harnesses connected to tethers that strapped them into the copter, and tiny cutters to slice through the tethers so they could free themselves in an emergency. The pilot, Richard Vance, was the only one who was not wearing such a harness he utilised a regular seatbelt and was the sole survivor.
Mr. Vance told federal investigators that he tried to totally free the passenger beside him, but the helicopter was submerged before he could finish unhooking the man’s harness, according to a preliminary report.
The internal documents, and interviews with men and women familiar with FlyNYON’s operation and Mr. Vance’s account, paint a portrait of a business that at occasions appeared to place business issues ahead of security issues as it scrambled to meet surging demand for a daring type of aerial tourism that it pioneered.
While government regulations and specialist standards had not kept pace, the company claimed on its website that it had developed a proprietary safety program that was the class of the market. In fact, the documents and interviews show that FlyNYON had been employing mostly off-the-shelf building harnesses that it had planned to upgrade — and that often had been supplemented by zip ties and blue painters tape — and tethers that could not be easily severed by the cutters provided.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. The Federal Aviation Administration, which had not previously particularly regulated doors-off helicopter flights, has banned any flights that use restraints that passengers cannot rapidly get out of, a prohibition aimed squarely at FlyNYON.
Multiple pilots who have worked with FlyNYON and Liberty Helicopters — such as the pilot who warned of the harnesses in the email — are seeking whistle-blower protections in order to speak out. They have retained a Washington lawyer who specializes in whistle-blower matters, Debra Katz. She has asked the New York lawyer general’s office to investigate FlyNYON, and she sent a letter to the F.A.A., claiming that the pilots have been topic to retaliation.
As a result, she wrote, “there is a pervasive feeling among Liberty pilots that if they supply truthful details to the F.A.A. and the N.T.S.B. and speak out about the lax safety culture and practices at FlyNYON, they will face blackballing in the industry and other types of profession-derailing retaliation.”
The New York attorney general’s workplace has begun a consumer-protection investigation into FlyNYON’s organization practices and demanded that the organization cease advertising doors-off flights, according to a particular person who had been briefed on the investigation.
Mr. Day, in his statement to the Times, pointed out that the F.A.A. had performed a web site inspection of FlyNYON’s facility on Oct. 31, at which “inspectors observed the harness and tethering method and continued to permit their use on Liberty and FlyNYON operated flights with out issue.”
An F.A.A. spokesman would not comment on the particulars of any given inspection. But the spokesman mentioned that, because the agency’s regulations do not particularly cover supplemental restraint systems, its inspectors would not have rendered judgment on the harness program. Liberty Helicopters declined to comment.
Like some air-tour organizations in other tourist destinations, FlyNYON offered flights on helicopters with the doors open or removed to enable passengers to take unobstructed photographs of the landscape beneath. But FlyNYON went a step additional by placing passengers in harnesses attached to tethers that would let them lean out of — or dangle their legs over — the edge of the cabin.
It was an experience that previously had been offered mostly to specialist photographers, who booked private flights exactly where they were usually the only passengers and, for that reason, could be much more closely monitored by the pilots. Mr. Day and his partners recognized the prospective profit in supplying such an experience far more broadly in an era when social media customers are willing to pay handsomely for activities that generate thumb-scroll-stopping photographs.
“Anyone can come up and be an aerial photographer with us,” says one of FlyNYON’s promotional videos.
The firm encouraged its consumers to post shots of their feet suspended over landmarks like the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building — images the firm named “shoe selfies” — on Instagram and other social media platforms. And keep in mind, its workers requested, to please tag the company in these posts, helping to spread the word about FlyNYON’s service.
The social-media method was operating, drawing far more and far more men and women to an industrial section of Kearny, N.J., on the edge of the Port of Newark, from which FlyNYON helicopters depart for flights over Manhattan. New York City officials had prohibited sightseeing tours from flying more than land, or flying at all on Sundays. But FlyNYON got around the restrictions by departing from New Jersey and designating its flights as aerial photography missions rather than tours with defined itineraries.
Mr. Day boasted in an internal e mail in February that FlyNYON had defied its doubters, whom he named “dinosaurs,” and had improved final year its enterprise by 400 percent. The organization was charging as significantly as $500 a seat for 5-passenger flights lasting 30 to 40 minutes over New York, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. By December, it was booking as a lot of as 28 flights a day, according to the emails.
Some knowledgeable pilots, like Bill Richards, saw what FlyNYON was doing and regarded as it reckless. Mr. Richardson, who flies camera crews in helicopters around New York to film scenes for movies and Television shows, stated, “It looked crazy to all of us who do this for a living.”
He said at one point he provided a retailer-purchased harness for professional photographers to put on although leaning out of his helicopter. But he abandoned that practice lengthy ago, he stated, and has because kept his passengers in their seats or on a camera mount approved by the F.A.A.
“Anybody who’s in a helicopter has to have an approved seat” — unless they are about to make a parachute jump, Mr. Richards said, citing a particular F.A.A. regulation.
On a Sunday afternoon in mid-February, six loads of FlyNYON clients have been aboard helicopters attempting to get images of the city at sundown, according to emails between firm officials. The crowd of thrill seekers was overwhelming FlyNYON’s sources, the emails show. At occasions, the company did not have enough harnesses, tethers, carabiners or headsets to outfit 1 group of passengers while one more was in the air, delaying liftoff, 1 FlyNYON official complained in a February e-mail with the subject line, “more gear necessary.”
The company’s web site says “safety has often been our prime priority,” and boasts of complete and rigorous passenger safety protocols. But the emails and interviews painted a different image than what the company projected.
Amongst its claims was the promise of a “proprietary eight-point security harness method.” A pilot who has worked with FlyNYON mentioned that the company’s most commonly used harness was really not proprietary at all, nor was it intended for aviation use. Rather, it was merely a yellow nylon building harness offered on House Depot’s site for $52, which came in only a single size.
Pilots complained that the harnesses had been also massive to correctly match smaller consumers, like several ladies and kids, according to the emails. They show that FlyNYON employees members were instructed at a single point to use zip ties to accomplish a tighter fit.
And to hold these harnesses and passengers’ seatbelts from unbuckling accidentally in flight — which would not have released the harnesses totally — FlyNYON staffers usually utilized tape that Mr. Day referred to as “NYON blue security tape,” according to three pilots who have worked with FlyNYON. But the “safety tape” was just widespread painters’ tape, said the pilots, a single of whom wrote the e mail warning about the harnesses and is among those getting represented by the whistle-blower lawyer. The pilots requested anonymity since of fears of retaliation and since they did not want jeopardize employment in the close-knit helicopter community.
Mr. Day, in his statement to The Times, minimized the pilots’ concerns, pointing out that under F.A.A. guidelines, pilots have responsibility for the safety of their flights. He stated “if these handful of Liberty pilots had concerns that they deemed detrimental to the security of the operation, they must have ceased operations and addressed the issue with Liberty management.”
The 3 pilots mentioned FlyNYON brushed aside numerous of the concerns they did raise, although the business did make some changes primarily based on their complaints.
After pilots expressed concern about the use of the tape, they have been told in December that FlyNYON had “put an order in for thick rubber bands which will hold the front buckle in place,” according to the minutes of a pilots’ meeting. “This will eradicate the need for the ‘blue tape’ on the harnesses.”
According to emails and interviews, pilots preferred a distinct model of harness, which could be adjusted to match passengers of varying sizes with out the use of zip ties. The harnesses, which were blue, were considered safer partly since they connected to the tethers in a spot that passengers could far more very easily attain to try to detach themselves. And the blue harnesses had been authorized by the F.A.A. for some makes use of, though not especially open-door helicopters flights, which had not been explicitly addressed in F.A.A. regulations.
FlyNYON intended to sooner or later replace all the yellow harnesses with blue ones, according to emails in November. And a organization official told pilots in a January e mail that the “blue harnesses ought to take priority more than yellow harnesses.”
However, when pilots insisted on blue harnesses for some smaller sized passengers, in a single instance delaying a flight by requesting a switch, Mr. Day responded testily. In a January email, he wrote that “the yellow harnesses are stunt/construction harnesses that are made for human safety hanging off buildings at 1,000 feet-plus. The blue harnesses are F.A.A. authorized but that is not a requirement for a doors-off flight. The yellow harnesses are just as legal/safe as the blue.”
At the time of the crash, the firm had only a couple of blue harnesses in use.
Likewise, the company’s pilots raised issues about the tethers utilised to secure the passengers, by way of their harnesses, to the interior of the helicopters. It was hard for passengers to reach the point at which the tethers fastened to their yellow harnesses, and, even if they could attain the connection, it would be difficult for them to disconnect the carabineers that connected the tethers to the harnesses on their own, according to the pilots who worked with FlyNYON. So every single passenger was supplied a hook-shaped blade, marketed as a seatbelt cutter, that they were instructed to use to sever the tether in case of an emergency that required them to extricate themselves.
A safety video played for passengers before they went on trips showed folks utilizing the cutters to very easily slice through the tethers, according to folks who viewed it. But the tethers in the video were not the identical ones becoming utilised by FlyNYON. And when staff tested the gear that was in use in November, they identified it extremely tough to sever the tether using the cutter, according to the former FlyNYON official.
Managers from FlyNYON have been present for the test, the former official said. But it was not till February that the firm began formally contemplating a strategy to order new tethers and cutters that would enable for less complicated slicing, according to the emails. The minutes of a late February meeting highlight a discussion about “researching and procuring a new cutter for the tethers which we will be testing shortly. There is also a new style of tether we are hunting into as nicely. This will need to have to be incorporated in the security video.”
On March 7 — just four days just before the crash — the company planned to go over a “final decision” on the new tethers and cutters, according to the emails.
It is unclear if FlyNYON bought the new gear, but, even if it did, the new tethers and cutters had been not deployed on the fatal March 11 flight. Instagram videos posted by the passengers before liftoff show them wearing the yellow harnesses.
A preliminary report by the N.T.S.B. indicated that the pilot, Mr. Vance, told investigators that he had “pointed out exactly where the cutting tool was positioned on their harness and explained how to use it” just before taking off.
Even though hovering over Central Park, he told them, the single-engine helicopter, an AS350 B2 model made by Airbus, all of a sudden lost energy. When he reached down to cut the flow of fuel as he prepared to place the aircraft down in the river, he saw that the fuel cutoff lever had been tripped and the tether of his front-seat passenger was under it. That observation suggested that the passenger’s movement may possibly have brought on the crash, although federal investigators have not reached a conclusion about the lead to.
After the crash, Dave Matula, a former pilot for FlyNYON who left the organization final year, wrote on Facebook that the fatalities were a “horrible but 100 percent preventable event.”
Published at Sat, 07 Apr 2018 19:39:13 +0000