Liberty Tour Helicopter Crash in New York City's East River

LH EC350

Kreindler is investigating the tragic helicopter crash in New York City’s East River Sunday night, March 11, 2018.

On Sunday evening shortly before impact, the helicopter’s pilot transmitted a mayday call to LaGuardia Airport, stating that the aircraft was experiencing engine failure. Videos of the accident show the helicopter swiftly losing altitude before impacting the water and tilting onto its side before disappearing beneath the waves. The helicopter’s pilot was the only survivor, escaping onto the top of the sinking helicopter while his five passengers remained trapped inside. Two of the victims were pronounced dead at the scene while the others passed away at a local hospital.

The doomed chopper, a Eurocopter AS350, is owned by New Jersey-based Liberty Helicopters, Inc. The company describes itself on its website as "the largest and most experienced helicopter sightseeing and charter service in New York City . . . in business and flying safely for over 30 years."  However, Sunday’s tragedy was Liberty’s third helicopter crash in 11 years. In 2009, nine people were killed after a Liberty helicopter collided with a private plane over the Hudson River.  Two years earlier, in 2007, a Liberty helicopter suffered engine failure and crashed into the Hudson River during a sightseeing tour. Fortunately, the pilot and all seven passengers survived that accident.

Sunday’s deadly helicopter flight was reportedly chartered by FlyNYON, a New Jersey company that runs tours, including "doors-off" flights that include securing the passengers to the aircraft by harnesses.

The tragedy raises important safety issues relating to helicopter operations in the NYC environs.
The design of the Eurocopter AS350-B2 helicopter will be central to the investigation.  This is especially true if the pilot’s report that a passenger may have inadvertently shut off the fuel to the helicopter because this is not the first time this has happened. The NTSB has previously made urgent recommendations to the FAA and the European Aviation Safety Administration to address the problem.

Fuel Levers
NTSB Safety Recommendation A-10-131 called for the redesign of the Eurocopter AS350-B2 helicopter’s fuel flow control lever after the NTSB identified incidents where the lever was inadvertently moved during flight. For example, in 1994, a Canadian-registered AS350B experienced a hard landing after a passenger inadvertently moved the fuel flow control lever with his right knee.  The NTSB recommended that the European Aviation Safety Agency require Eurocopter to review the design of the fuel flow control lever and ensure that the lever is protected to prevent unintentional movement out of its intended position and also made recommendations to the FAA on the same issue.

Safety Harness System
Specializing in doors-off helicopter photo tours, the tour company, FlyNYON, promotes its safety standards on its website and singled out its "proprietary eight-point Safety Harness System" worn by passengers. Unfortunately, this safety device that helps prevent catastrophic injuries while the aircraft is in flight, may become a complicated barrier to egress if a helicopter plunges into the water and capsizes. A helicopter descent and subsequent crash into water can be fast and disorienting and passengers may have great difficulty extricating themselves from the helicopter, which will quickly sink if the helicopter’s floats are not properly deployed.  On Sunday, all five passengers had to eventually be cut out of their harnesses by first responders following the rapid submerging of the helicopter. It seems clear that the "safety" harnesses these passengers were provided likely played a large role in their unnecessary and tragic deaths.

Emergency Flotation System
Bystander video appears to show that the emergency floatation system was deployed at the time of impact, but did not prevent the helicopter from falling to one side and capsizing. Investigators will also focus on why the floats did not fully deploy leading the helicopter to turn upside down and trap the passengers.  There is a history of asymmetrical inflation of helicopter emergency floats.  This lead to Apical Industries, Inc. issuing a service bulletin to attempt to address the issue.  The FAA has approved Apical for installation on the AS350B2 helicopter.  See STC No. SR00470LA.
Also, a 2009 Airworthiness Directive by the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Administration addressed weight limits for Eurocopter AS350 flights over water and the improper mixing of different emergency flotation gear types in one helicopter that "may cause insufficient effectiveness on ditching and may lead to instability of the helicopter on the water in case of emergency." See AD/ECUREUIL/100.

Pilot and Passenger Emergency Safety Training
The military, in particular the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard extensively train pilots and aircrew on ditching procedures. A flight in a single engine helicopter at low altitude over water requires the operator to properly prepare passengers in case the helicopter is forced to ditch in the water. A passenger on a different helicopter flight, but who watched a pre-flight safety video with the passengers of the doomed flight, said that the safety instruction was brief and insufficient – even for an experienced passenger.

Emergency Breathing Systems
For decades, compact emergency breathing systems have been advocated for decades for all offshore helicopter operations. Common, a commercially available miniature SCUBA systems or a re-breather bag system for each passenger could have added critical minutes of underwater survival time while passengers were attempting egress. This was a survivable ditching in which the helicopter capsized, but remained near the surface of the water. If the passengers had each been equipped with an emergency breathing system they may have survived this tragedy.

NTSB Investigation
Sunday’s crash is being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.  The NTSB’s preliminary report, which is expected to be released in the coming days, will provide basic information regarding the accident, the operating company and the pilot. The NTSB’s full investigation will likely take more than a year to complete. The investigation will result in two further reports: a Factual Report, which describes the investigators’ factual findings, and a Probable Cause Report, which reflects the NTSB’s opinion as to what caused the accident.
In addition to  track record representing victims of tour helicopter cases, the firm has vast experience specifically regarding Eurocopter helicopters.
Kreindler & Kreindler has been involved in the litigation and investigation surrounding many different Eurocopter accidents, including:

Tate v. Eurocopter, et al., 98-cv-04237, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York. Kreindler & Kreindler represented the family of a Colgate Palmolive Executive killed in a crash into New York's East River. Through our investigation, discovered a defect with the vertical fin of the helicopter (a BK 117), which was key to establishing liability. The case resulted in a record wrongful death recovery of almost $30 million.

Maillet v. Honeywell, Case No. NC0433283, Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles. Kreindler's investigation of a Eurocopter AS350 crash uncovered a fuel control failure. Suit was filed in 2010, and we obtained a confidential recovery for our client.

Clarke v. USA, 11-cv-02339, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey. Kreindler represented the family of one of the victims of a mid-air collision that occurred when an Eurocopter AS350 helicopter was struck from behind by an airplane over the Hudson River (the "Hudson Mid-Air" case). Visibility, pilot awareness, and communication were central issues in that case.

Shepard v. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, 02-cv-0449, U.S. District Court, District of Hawaii. Kreindler represented a New Jersey family killed in a Eurocopter AS350 helicopter tour helicopter crash due to the pilot's loss of situational awareness in Hawaii. The case lead to a very significant recovery.

Grande v. Blue Hawaiian & Eurocopter, 08-cv-01188, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas. This case involved a Eurocopter EC130 crash, which Kreindler demonstrated had been caused by a fuel control malfunction.

Brown v. Eurocopter, 98-cv-0529, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas. A former Marine Corps pilot who flew Presidents Reagan and Bush was killed along with his oil industry passengers when the A-Star helicopter tail rotor part malfunctioned on a flight out to an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to proving the case and obtaining a very substantial recovery for our client, Kreindler successfully petitioned the NTSB to change its probable cause report. The NTSB probable cause conclusion had wrongly found pilot error in the response to the tail rotor problem. Kreindler submitted evidence that it developed in the litigation that convinced the NTSB to reverse this conclusion, exonerate the pilot and issue a safety warning about the defect in the part fleet-wide.

In DeGruy v. Robinson Helicopter, Kreindler represented the family of a passenger who was killed in a post-crash fire in an Australian helicopter crash. The primary liability theory in the case was the failure of the helicopter manufacturer and the operator to incorporate known and available technology to prevent post-crash fires. The case resolved for a substantial confidential settlement under applicable U.S. law.