The NYC Helicopter Crash May Have Been Caused by a Safety Strap
A passenger's safety tether wrapped around an emergency fuel shutoff lever might have caused the engine failure of the helicopter that crashed into New York City's East River and killed the five passengers on board, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board released Monday.
A portion of the front seat passenger's safety tether was found underneath the lever, which was in the "off" position as the helicopter went into engine failure, according to the NTSB's interview of the helicopter pilot, who was the crash's sole survivor.
Federal inspectors interviewed the 33-year-old pilot, Richard Vance, and examined the aircraft and its engine. According to the interview, shortly after the helicopter went into engine failure, he established an autorotative glide and considered landing in nearby Central Park. But, he thought there would be "too many people," so he veered toward the East River. He then made a distress call saying the aircraft was in engine failure, and tried twice to restart the engine to no avail.
Aiming for the East River, the pilot activated the helicopter's floats and "committed to impact." "When he reached down for the emergency fuel shutoff lever, he realized that it was in the off position," the report states. "He also noted that a portion of the front seat passenger's tether was underneath the lever."
As the helicopter descended to 600 feet, the pilot switched the fuel shutoff level back to the "on" position, and tried to restart the engine again. The engine's instruments were showing positive indications, which meant it was restarting, but at 300 feet, the pilot realized the engine "wasn't spooling up fast enough," and the aircraft was too close to the water's surface. So, he flipped the emergency fuel shutoff back to the "off" position and continued the descent in autorotation.
After the helicopter made impact on the river, the aircraft began to fill with water, and the pilot tried to free the passenger in the front seat. Reaching for the harness' carabiner that attached to the helicopter, the pilot "turned the knurled screw 'two or three rotations'; by that time, the helicopter was 'listing past a 45° roll,'" the report says.
The pilot then decided to evacuate the helicopter. According to the report: "By the time he unbuckled his restraint, he was fully under water." He then pulled himself free by the door frame, stood on the belly of the helicopter and waved for help.
The report also states that before the engine began to fail, one of the passengers was riding without his restraint, which was hanging from the front seat. The pilot "picked it up, tapped the passenger, and told him to put it back on, which he did," the report says.
When NTSB officials examined the Eurocopter AS350B2, the report says they found, "the fuel flow control lever was found in the off position. The fuel shutoff lever was found in the open position."
The New York helicopter company, Liberty Helicopters, has had two previous crashes, one of them also fatal, in the past 11 years. Since the crash occurred on March 11, the FAA has temporarily banned "doors-off" helicopter flights that involve restraints that can not be released quickly in an emergency.