SCHUMER DEMANDS INSPECTOR GENERAL INVESTIGATION INTO FAA APPROVAL PROCESS TO EXAMINE HOW ‘DOORS OFF’ FLIGHTS, DANGEROUS HARNESS SYSTEM EVER RECEIVED FED APPROVAL IN THE FIRST PLACE; AND TO DO THOROUGH EXAMINATION OF WHAT OTHER UNSAFE PRACTICES MIGHT STILL BE ALLOWED
Tragic East River Chopper Crash Has Spurred Serious Action By FAA To Now Halt Dangerous Chopper Flying But Schumer Argues Harness Never Should Have Been Permitted In First Place & Demands Probe Into FAA Policies & Procedures That Allowed Dangerous System
Schumer, With Support From Gillibrand, Says Present Investigation Shouldn’t Stop With Crash Itself; Entire System Behind Approving These Dangerous Operations Needs Its Own Deep-Dive Review ASAP
Schumer, Gillibrand: Restraint System Should Have Been Grounded From Day 1
On the heels of the tragic and deadly East River helicopter crash, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, today, called for an Inspector General and National Transportation Safety Board investigation to examine exactly how "doors off" helicopter sightseeing flights and dangerous harness systems ever received FAA approval in the first place.
“These ‘doors-off’ helicopter tours may have offered an Instagram-worthy experience but their harnesses appear to put passengers in insta-danger,” said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. "While I applaud the FAA for quickly moving to halt these types of helicopter flights, I am demanding to know how they were allowed to take off in the first place. Doors- off flights and this questionable restraint system should have been grounded from day one. The Inspector General and the NTSB should immediately launch an investigation to examine how exactly these flights were ever given the green light and ensure that helicopter operators across the country are adhering to modern safety regulations."
"It's clear that 'doors off' helicopters and the harness systems used on these flights weren't safe, yet somewhere along the line they passed what are supposed to be rigorous FAA safety tests" said Senator Gillibrand. "FAA made the right decision to temporarily ground these dangerous flight operations, but we need a much closer look at how we got to this point in the first place and clear answers about what went wrong during FAA's review, testing, and approval process so we can make sure a tragedy like this never happens again."
The FlyNYON “doors off” helicopter tour that crashed was operated by Liberty Helicopters and offered passengers a “custom photo experience” in which they could hang out the side of the aircraft to take social media worthy photos. However, Schumer explained that the thrill-seeking aerial tour required passengers be strapped in using heavy duty harnesses that may have ultimately prevented the passengers from escaping when the helicopter crashed
On March 11th, five passengers in a helicopter, operated by Liberty Helicopters, were killed when the helicopter crashed into the East River. Schumer explained that the March 11th crash was not the first incident involving Liberty Helicopters. The company’s fleet has now been involved in three crashes in the past 11 years. In 2009, a Liberty Helicopter crashed into a small private plane over the Hudson River, killing nine, six of whom were in the helicopter. This was described by the NTSB as the result of a “poor flight control policy” giving more responsibility to pilots rather than air traffic controllers. Another Liberty Helicopter crashed in 2007, as a result of a manufacturer issue involving the chopper blade. The eight people on board were all safely rescued.
Following the crash, Schumer urged the FAA to take action. Soon after his public pushing, Liberty Helicopters volunteered to cease the ‘doors off’ flights made known in light of the crash while the NTSB continues to investigate. This past week, the FAA also announced it has taken steps to limit ‘doors off’ flights and the restraint system that were in place during this crash. However, Schumer said a deep dive into the FAA policies and practices for reviewing the crashworthiness of helicopters is clearly needed in this case. Schumer also said a review of the testing, and approval process that was conducted before authorizing this specific safety and restraint system is also needed.
According to reports, sightseeing and tourist flights are listed as the third leading category of fatal helicopter accidents. In 2016, the overall helicopter accident rate was 3.19 per 100,000 flight hours. In 2016, there were 106 helicopter accidents, including 17 that were fatal. Since August 2009, the NTSB has investigated 19 helicopter accidents in New York, not including the most recent East River crash.
Between 1991 and 1994 a number of safety regulations were updated for helicopter operations, and yet since that time a number of reports and findings have indicated that compliance with those regulations remains limited. Either as a result of grandfathered approvals, or safety waivers, Schumer said it appears that many helicopters operating in the United States today do not meet modern safety standards. Schumer today said that the Inspector General should conduct a thorough and complete look at how the FAA and the DOT are conducting oversight, enforcement, and encouraging compliance with modern safety standards.
The NTSB has launched an investigation into the East River helicopter crash and so, many unanswered questions remain. However, Schumer explained that this particular “doors-off” flight included a heavy-duty harness system that allowed passengers the opportunity to lean out the helicopter to capture aerial photographs. Schumer said, according to reports, the harnesses may have prevented the passengers from escaping the wreckage. FlyNYON refers to it as the “8 Point Safety Harness System” and encourages passengers to take a “shoe selfie” onboard. The company says these flights offer a “doors-off custom photo experience.” Passengers onboard these helicopters are strapped in with a metal loop attaching the back of the harness to the helicopter. The passengers also have a seatbelt on. While there were reportedly knives onboard the flight, past passengers have said there is inadequate training about how they are to be used. Before boarding, passengers watch a short video explaining that the knives can be used to cut through the harness if trapped. According to reports, the video does not explain how to cut through the nylon ties and does not explain where the knives are located onboard.
Senator Schumer’s and Gillibrand’s letter to the Inspector General and the NTSB appears below.
Dear Inspector General Scovel III and Vice Chairman Dinh-Zarr
We write today in response to the tragic helicopter crash that occurred in the East River on Sunday March 11th. While we appreciate the immediate response of the NTSB, and have the utmost confidence in your investigation and look forward to its results, we’d also like to request that a more in-depth review be conducted to determine how the harness system and ‘doors off’ flight operations were ever approved to begin with. Clearly something went remarkably wrong with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) review and approval of these sorts of operations and it’s imperative that your organizations shed additional light on that entire process.
As you are aware, there are considerable statues, regulations, and recommendations that govern helicopter operations in the United States. It is incredibly concerning to us that given all of those safeguards and requirements, an operation that on its face seems so clearly to be unsafe, was ever given authority to operate in the first place.
It’s our understanding that the Federal Aviation Administration has now taken steps to limit ‘doors off’ flights and the restraint system that were in place during this crash, and we applaud them for taking that action. However, a deep dive into the FAA policies and practices for reviewing the crashworthiness of helicopters is clearly needed in this case and your two agencies should work together to accomplish that. In addition, your agencies should thoroughly review that exact review, testing, and approval process that was conducted before authorizing this specific safety and restraint system.
Between 1991 and 1994 a number of safety regulations were updated for helicopter operations, and yet since that time a number of reports and findings have indicated that compliance with those regulations remains limited. Either as a result of grandfathered approvals, or safety waivers, it seems likely that many helicopters operating in the United States today do not meet modern safety standards. In that vein, we’d also ask that you take a thorough and complete look at how the FAA and United States Department of Transportation is conducting oversight, enforcement, and encouraging compliance with modern safety standards.
Both of these reviews, first, how the harness that was in place during the tragic crash in the East River received its original approval for use, and second, what role has the FAA played in ensuring helicopters in use today meet modern safety standards should be critical pieces of your investigation into this tragic accident. This information can help further guide appropriate federal action and prevent further tragedies of this kind.
We appreciate your efforts on this matter, should you need further information please do not hesitate to contact our offices.
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
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