U.S. inspector general to probe FAA helicopter oversight

By David Shepardson
The wreckage of a chartered Liberty Helicopters helicopter that crashed into the East River is hoisted from the water in New York

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Transportation Department's inspector general said on Tuesday it will probe the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) oversight of doors-off helicopter operations after a New York crash in March 2018 that killed five people.

The review sought by U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York comes after a doors-off Eurocopter AS350 chartered by Liberty Helicopters of New Jersey crashed in the East River, killing all five passengers, who were on a private photo-shoot trip over New York City. The helicopter's pilot survived.

The five passengers had been tightly harnessed and they were allowed to lean out of the open doors to take photos. After the crash, the harnesses had to be cut and removed to free the passengers.

The senators asked the inspector general to determine how the safety restraint system used during the Liberty Helicopters crash received its original approval from the FAA, and how the FAA reviewed, tested and approved the supplemental restraint system.

The FAA declined to comment on the inspector general review.

Tourist helicopter rides over New York are popular, starting at around $250 and lasting 15 to 25 minutes.

After another fatal helicopter crash in New York last month, in which a pilot flying alone in bad weather crashed into a Manhattan high-rise, a group of nine lawmakers urged the FAA to ban all non-essential helicopter flights over New York City. "There is no justification for allowing tourists to joy-ride through our skies, endangering people below and adding to the heavy burden of noise pollution residents already endure," they wrote.

In March 2018, the FAA issued an emergency order prohibiting doors-off helicopter flights unless passengers had quick-release restraints. The FAA also said last year it was conducting a “top to bottom review” of its rules governing such flights.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said last year in its preliminary report on the East River crash that the pilot told investigators the emergency fuel shut-off switch had been accidentally tripped moments before the crash.

Two of the five passengers died at the scene and the three others died later after being taken to local hospitals.

The NTSB report said the passengers had restraint systems installed by the manufacturer as well as a harness system comprised of off-the-shelf components consisting of a nylon fall-protection harness that was attached at the occupants’ back by a locking carabineer to a lanyard.





(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler)