The National Transportatio​n Safety Board (NTSB) interrupted its investigation into the recent helicopter crash in New York City to issue an urgent safety recommendation, after determining the culprit behind five fatalities in the accident.

The five passengers in the aircraft were wearing harnesses; the pilot was not. When the helicopter impacted the East River subsequently rolled inverted on March 11, 2018, the pilot – who was only wearing manufacturer-installed lap and shoulder belts - escaped from the aircraft with minor injuries. The passengers remained inside the helicopter and drowned.

A "doors-off" flight

The harnesses were used because the flight was a “doors-off” aerial photography one intended to enable passengers to take pictures of the city from high overhead. Such flights are popular with tourists in cities all over the world.

The NTSB urged the Federal Aviation Administration yesterday to prohibit commercial flights that use passenger harness systems that do not allow for easy release during emergencies.

Less than a week after the crash, the FAA did announce a ban of "doors-off" aircraft flights unless passengers can quickly release their safety restraints during an emergency. However, the NTSB pointed to a lack of specifics in the announcement. 

“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. “And definitive action needs to be taken.”

Off-the-shelf components

The additional harness system consisted of a nylon fall-protection harness tethered via a lanyard to the helicopter. The harnesses allowed passengers to move securely within the helicopter, including sitting in the door sill, while airborne. The harness system was not installed by the helicopter manufacturer; it was comprised of off-the-shelf components that were provided to the passengers by FlyNYON, the company that sold the experience to the passengers. Under normal circumstances at the conclusion of each flight, FlyNYON personnel would release a locking carabiner located on the back of the passengers’ harnesses. 

Passengers couldn't escape

Despite being given a briefing on how to remove these additional harnesses using a provided cutting tool, none of the passengers were able to escape after the helicopter rolled over into the water. The pilot’s manufacturer-installed restraint system was required to comply with 14 CFR section 27.785(c), which states that “Each occupant’s seat must have a combined safety belt and shoulder harness with a single point release.” The harness system provided to the passengers on the accident flight was not evaluated by the FAA.

The NTSB has a long-standing concern with safe egress for passengers aboard helicopters. As a result of a helicopter accident that occurred in 2008, the NTSB found that three of the surviving passengers’ unfamiliarity with the type of buckles on the restraints in the helicopter significantly hindered their ability to release their restraints when they attempted to evacuate the cabin under emergency conditions. In the 2008 accident, passengers received a briefing that described how to operate the rotary restraint, but the surviving passengers said they became confused with its release when the accident occurred.

The NTSB will continue to probe the cause of the accident, which occurred after the pilot reported a loss of engine power. The 30 minute flight was operated by Liberty Helicopters.