Months Before Deadly Crash, Helicopter Pilots Warned of Safety Issues

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Less than two months after the email exchange, on March 11, a FlyNYON flight splashed in the East River after losing power and quickly rolled over, 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 small 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 used a standard seatbelt and was the sole survivor.

Mr. Vance told federal investigators that he tried to free the passenger beside him, but the helicopter was submerged before he could finish unhooking the man’s harness, according to a preliminary report.

Surging Business

The internal documents, and interviews with people familiar with FlyNYON’s operation and Mr. Vance’s account, paint a portrait of a company that at times appeared to put business concerns ahead of safety concerns as it scrambled to meet surging demand for a daring form of aerial tourism that it pioneered.

While government regulations and professional standards had not kept pace, the company claimed on its website that it had developed a proprietary safety system that was the class of the industry. In fact, the documents and interviews show that FlyNYON had been using mostly off-the-shelf construction harnesses that it had planned to upgrade — and that sometimes were 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 specifically regulated doors-off helicopter flights, has banned any flights that use restraints that passengers cannot quickly get out of, a prohibition aimed squarely at FlyNYON.

Multiple pilots who have worked with FlyNYON and Liberty Helicopters — including 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 attorney general’s office to investigate FlyNYON, and she sent a letter to the F.A.A., claiming that the pilots were subject to retaliation.

As a result, she wrote, “there is a pervasive feeling among Liberty pilots that if they provide truthful information 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 forms of career-derailing retaliation.”

The New York attorney general’s office has begun a consumer-protection investigation into FlyNYON’s business practices and demanded that the company cease promoting doors-off flights, according to a 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 site inspection of FlyNYON’s facility on Oct. 31, at which “inspectors observed the harness and tethering process and continued to permit their use on Liberty and FlyNYON operated flights without issue.”

The F.A.A. confirmed that it conducted “routine oversight” of Liberty’s operations on Oct. 31 and “observed supplemental harnesses outside a helicopter.” But a spokesman for the agency said that its inspectors would not have rendered judgment on the harnesses because supplemental restraints are not subject to inspection. Liberty Helicopters declined to comment.

Unique Sightseeing

Like some air-tour companies in other tourist destinations, FlyNYON offered flights on helicopters with the doors open or removed to allow passengers to take unobstructed photographs of the landscape below. But FlyNYON went a step further by putting 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 available mostly to professional photographers, who booked private flights where they were often the only passengers and, therefore, could be more closely monitored by the pilots. Mr. Day and his partners recognized the potential profit in offering such an experience more widely in an era when social media users are willing to pay handsomely for activities that produce thumb-scroll-stopping photos.

“Anyone can come up and be an aerial photographer with us,” says one of FlyNYON’s promotional videos.

The company encouraged its customers to post shots of their feet suspended over landmarks like the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building — images the company called “shoe selfies” — on Instagram and other social media platforms. And remember, its workers requested, to please tag the company in those posts, helping to spread the word about FlyNYON’s service.

The social-media strategy was working, drawing more and more people 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 over 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.

Photo


Since the deadly crash, the Federal Aviation Administration has ordered a halt to all doorless helicopter flights like the one that crashed.

Credit
Eric Adams

Mr. Day boasted in an internal email in February that FlyNYON had defied its doubters, whom he called “dinosaurs,” and had increased its business last year by 400 percent. The company was charging as much as $500 a seat for five-passenger flights lasting 30 to 40 minutes over New York, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. By December, it was booking as many as 28 flights a day, the emails said.

Some experienced pilots, like Bill Richards, saw what FlyNYON was doing and considered it reckless. Mr. Richards, who flies camera crews in helicopters around New York to film for movies and TV shows, said, “It looked crazy to all of us who do this for a living.”

He said at one point he provided a store-bought harness for professional photographers to wear while leaning out of his helicopter. But he abandoned that practice long ago, he said, and has since 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 planning to make a parachute jump, Mr. Richards said, citing a specific F.A.A. regulation.

On a Sunday afternoon in mid-February, six loads of FlyNYON customers were aboard helicopters trying to get pictures of the city at sundown, according to emails between company officials. The crowd of thrill seekers was overwhelming FlyNYON’s resources, the emails show. At times, the company did not have enough harnesses, tethers, carabiners or headsets to outfit one group of passengers while another was in the air, delaying liftoff, one FlyNYON official complained in a February email with the subject line, “more gear needed.”

The company’s website says “safety has always been our top priority,” and boasts of comprehensive and rigorous passenger safety protocols. But the emails and interviews painted a different picture.

Among its claims was the promise of a “proprietary eight-point safety harness system.” A pilot who has worked with FlyNYON said that the company’s most commonly used harness was actually not proprietary at all, nor was it intended for aviation use. Rather, it was merely a yellow nylon construction harness available on Home Depot’s website for $52, which came in only one size.

Pilot Complaints

Pilots complained that the harnesses were too big to properly fit smaller customers, including many women and children, according to the emails. They show that FlyNYON staff members were instructed at one point to use zip ties to achieve a tighter fit.

And to keep those harnesses and passengers’ seatbelts from unbuckling accidentally in flight — which would not have released the harnesses completely — FlyNYON staffers often used tape that Mr. Day referred to as “NYON blue safety tape,” according to three pilots who have worked with FlyNYON. But the “safety tape” was just common painters’ tape, said the pilots, one of whom wrote the email warning about the harnesses and is among those being represented by the whistle-blower lawyer. The pilots requested anonymity because of fears of retaliation and because they did not want to jeopardize employment in the close-knit helicopter community.

Mr. Day, in his statement to The Times, minimized the concerns, pointing out that under F.A.A. rules, pilots have responsibility for the safety of their flights. He said “if these handful of Liberty pilots had issues that they deemed detrimental to the safety of the operation, they should have ceased operations and addressed the issue with Liberty management.”

The three pilots said FlyNYON brushed aside many of the concerns they did raise, though the company did make some changes based on their complaints.

After pilots expressed concern about the tape, they were 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 eliminate the need for the ‘blue tape’ on the harnesses.”

According to emails and interviews, pilots preferred a different model of harness that could be adjusted to fit passengers of varying sizes without the use of zip ties. The harnesses, which were blue, were considered safer partly because they connected to the tethers in a place that passengers could more easily reach to try to detach themselves. And the blue harnesses were approved by the F.A.A. for some uses, though not specifically open-door helicopters flights, which had not been explicitly addressed in F.A.A. rules.

FlyNYON intended to eventually replace all the yellow harnesses with blue ones, according to emails in November. And a company official told pilots in a January email that the “blue harnesses should take priority over yellow harnesses.”

Yet, when pilots insisted on blue harnesses for some smaller passengers, in one 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 designed for human safety hanging off buildings at 1,000 feet-plus. The blue harnesses are F.A.A. approved but that isn’t 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 company had only a few blue harnesses in use.

Cutting the Harness

Likewise, the company’s pilots raised concerns about the tethers used to secure the passengers, via their harnesses, to the interior of the helicopters. It was difficult for passengers to reach the point at which the tethers fastened to their yellow harnesses, and, even if they could reach 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 each passenger was provided 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 people using the cutters to easily slice through the tethers, according to people who viewed it. But the tethers in the video were not the same ones being used by FlyNYON. And when employees tested the equipment that was in use in November, they found it extremely difficult to sever the tether using the cutter, according to the former FlyNYON official.

Managers from FlyNYON were present for the test, the former official said. But it was not until February that the company began formally considering a plan to order new tethers and cutters that would allow for easier 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 looking into as well. This will need to be included in the safety video.”

On March 7 — just four days before the crash — the company planned to discuss a “final decision” on the new tethers and cutters, according to the emails.

It is unclear if FlyNYON purchased the new equipment, but, even if it did, the new tethers and cutters were 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 where the cutting tool was located on their harness and explained how to use it” before taking off.

While hovering over Central Park, he told them, the single-engine helicopter, an AS350 B2 model made by Airbus, suddenly lost power. When he reached down to cut the flow of fuel as he prepared to put 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 have caused the crash, though federal investigators have not reached a conclusion about the cause.

After the crash, Dave Matula, a pilot who used to fly for FlyNYON who stopped last year, wrote on Facebook that the fatalities were a “horrible but 100 percent preventable event.”

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