Five people were killed when a private charter helicopter (Airbus AS350, Regn N35OLH) crashed into New York’s East River on Sunday evening. The helicopter was on a photo shoot where fare-paying passengers are given a ‘doors-off’ ride, leaning out when required to capture breathtaking pictures of the Manhattan skyline that soon find their way to Facebook or Instagram.
Flying over beautiful (but hostile) terrain in an open helicopter with the wind rushing through your hair is a magical, edge-of-the-seat experience. I have done it many times in the line of duty.
An Accident Waiting to Happen
As opposed to the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, this must go down as one of the most unsuccessful ditchings ever. The lone survivor was the pilot, Richard Vance, 33, a former helicopter instructor from Connecticut. As per a report in the New York Times, the helicopter was owned by Liberty Helicopters and flown by FLyNYON, a company that specializes in ‘doors-off’ photo tours. Passengers were given a 10-minute safety video and tethered into the helicopter with an eight-point proprietary safety harness, complete with a knife for cutting it off in case of an emergency requiring quick exit.
As a former navy pilot with thousands of legitimate ‘doors-off’ hours over sea in Alouettes and now flying Bell 412 and AW139 for offshore O&G, this is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard.
Let me explain for the benefit of the uninitiated.
Nature of Helicopter Flying
Unlike an airliner where the seat belts sign is turned off after the aircraft reaches cruise, passengers in a helicopter require to be belted-in at all times. This is in the nature of helicopter flying where the machine is capable of translating in six degrees of freedom. Large sideslip angles can develop as a result of manoeuvring flight. Sudden onset of bank and pitch angles, sharp acceleration, deceleration and sideforce are all in the helicopter’s routine envelope. So when you fly in one of those machines, you keep your seat belts always ON.
Helicopters also do sometimes fly over water in support of multifarious roles, including one which the ill-fated AS350 was undertaking on Sunday evening. Footage of the crash reveals that the helicopter was equipped with emergency floats. This means that the operators envisaged and sought clearance from Federal authorities for over-water flights.
Design for Safe Exit after Ditching
In the navy, we used to fly the single-engine Allouettes over sea without doors. This was not for any thrill or photo opportunities. It was meant to facilitate easy egress from the helicopter should any failure necessitate a ditching into the sea. We operated without floats where a downed helicopter would sink rapidly. Therefore, no effort was spared to enable easy and quick underwater exit as per a drill that the aircrew trained-in at regular intervals. A quick-release buckle (QRB) on the waist provided instant release from the four-point harness. Such QRBs are found on all types of aircraft for obvious reasons. The only event in which cabin doors were fitted on the Alouette for over-water flying was in the ambulance configuration where the stretcher was supported by hardpoints on the sliding door. This configuration is only deployed for lifesaving missions or for exercises with dummy load.
Bigger helicopters with doors like the offshore configuration of AW139 are specifically designed with floats, liferaft, markings, emergency lights and easily deployable emergency exits, all of which serve a singular purpose – safe egress from a helicopter that lands up in the drink.
Fitment of emergency floatation gear is not a guarantee against helicopters sinking or developing unusual attitudes inside water. I recall an Indian Navy Kamov-28 that ditched at sea in March 2009 but capsized and sank due to faulty operation of floats. On 29 Apr 2017, an AW 139 from Abu Dhabi Aviation undertook controlled ditching due to a gear box malfunction. The helicopter ditched upright but inverted soon after due to deflation of the left aft float. Fortunately, in both cases the passengers and crew managed to evacuate the aircraft in time by following the emergency egress procedure meticulously.
Seconds to Live…or Die
Helicopter Underwater Egress Training (HUET) equips crew and passengers to deal with the unlikely event of helicopter ditching into water. In a controlled ditching, if all goes well, floats operate and nobody panics, there will be adequate time for crew and passengers to unbuckle and evacuate.
However, water is a terribly unforgiving medium. In unplanned ditching, if the aircraft inverts or floods with water, life can ebb out in seconds. Brace for impact, orient yourself, take a deep breath, wait for the violent motion to stop, operate the emergency exit, unbuckle and out you go. That’s all there is time for. A ditching like the one in East River, New York where the aircraft inverted in icy waters under poor light conditions is perhaps as tough as it gets.
That is why Sunday’s crash raises eyebrows almost instantly.
Doomed from the Start
What kind of regulations allow people to be strapped up with 8-point safety harnesses that have to be cut through with a knife in a ditching scenario? Anybody who has taken underwater egress training will attest to the sheer impracticality of groping about for a knife while hanging upside down inside an inverted helicopter sinking in dark, freezing waters. It is Navy SEALS stuff; suicidal for others, especially unsuspecting tourists out on a photo shoot. Not one among the five managed to wield the knife and free themselves from the deadly harness. This should tell us something.
Where there are excited tourists with cameras and 8-point harnesses, there have to be plenty of straps and flailing arms and legs. The pilot reportedly told investigators that the fuel shut-off lever may have been operated inadvertently by some passenger or got pulled by onboard equipment or strap. This could choke fuel supply to the engine after which the only way to go is down. The NTSB investigation is underway but this one has all the trappings of a totally avoidable and infinitely sad accident in which five passengers, impossibly strapped to the aircraft, were sent all the way to a watery grave.
Hope the NTSB investigation gets to the root cause and FAA nails the real culprits without witch-hunting the pilot who did rather well to avoid built-up areas and punch out not one but three Mayday calls in his short glide down to the East River (see this online clip with ATC transcript).
FAA should shut down this ‘doors-off’ enterprise forthwith till such time steps to ensure passenger safety in the event of ditching are instituted. We don’t have to look far. The offshore helicopter industry flies over water 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. While framing rules for such businesses out to make a quick buck, perhaps it is in order to drink from the fountain of offshore wisdom.
The show must go on. But always with an eye on safety.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. Cover photo courtesy www.newsweek.com. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal.