Pilots for the company involved in the fatal “doors-off” helicopter crash in New York City in March had reportedly warned their bosses of potential safety risks for equipment in the aircraft, according to an investigative report published Saturday by The New York Times.
A company email exchange obtained by the Times revealed that pilots for FlyNYON had for months repeatedly asked their bosses for better safety gear. One pilot had even warned against the aircrafts’ harnesses, writing “we are setting ourselves up for failure.”
Four days before the crash, that pilot recommended a cutting tool that would allow passengers to free themselves from the aircraft’s safety harnesses and tethers in the case of an emergency. Their current cutters, which are typically attached to the harnesses, were ineffective, the emails suggested.
One former FlyNYON official told the Times that employees had found it extremely difficult to cut through the passenger tethers with the set of cutters the business had been using.
The Times learned of these warnings after reviewing company emails and internal documents and conducting interviews with people familiar with the company. Vertical Magazine, a helicopter trade magazine, obtained the same emails and documents.
On March 11, a helicopter owned by Liberty Helicopters that was on a FlyNYON doors-off tour of New York City crashed into the East River, killing all the passengers except for the pilot.
The pilot of the tour was the only one in the chopper wearing a normal seat belt and not a special safety harness like the other passengers.
At a press conference after the crash, New York Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said that all victims were “tightly harnessed” in the helicopter when divers went to recover their bodies.
“The five people, besides the pilot, were all tightly harnessed,” Nigro said at the time. “So these harnesses had to be cut and removed in order to get these folks off of this helicopter, which was upside down at the time and completely submerged.”
The helicopter’s harnesses were used to allow passengers to safely lean out of the aircraft and take photos, a feature which FlyNYON aggressively advertised. The harnesses are typically tethered to a point inside the aircraft to prevent passengers from falling out.
The emails provided to the Times and Vertical Magazine also show growing tension between experienced pilots and the customer service representatives who were tasked with supervising the safety briefing videos and putting the passengers in their harnesses.
In the safety video intended for passengers, people can be seen using the cutters to slice through their tethers, the Times reported.
According to the minutes of a meeting between FlyNYON and Liberty pilots, the pilots appeared to be concerned over the customer service representatives’ (referred to in the emails as CX) lack of relevant aviation experience, according to Vertical Magazine.
One such meeting summary from Dec. 17 read: “There has been some confusion with the new harnesses. [Names redacted] will be conducting CX training to make sure that all pax [passengers] who use new harnesses are arriving at the helicopter wearing them properly.”
A preliminary report of the March 11 crash by the National Transportation Safety Board said that Richard Vance, the pilot of the flight, had checked the passengers’ harnesses and showed them where their cutting tool was. He also showed them how to use it, before seating the passengers and securing their tethers to hard points on the helicopter.
The pilots who spoke to the Times, including the one who warned the company of the harnesses and ineffective cutting tools, are working with attorney Debra Katz to obtain whistle-blower protections so they can speak out against the company.
In a statement to the Times, FlyNYON chief executive Patrick K. Day denied that his company had ignored the pilots’ safety concerns.
According to the paper, Day denied “that anyone at FlyNYON did not heed issues raised by pilots at Liberty Helicopter ” and “failed to respond to safety concerns.”