The doors-off photo flight industry is finding itself under scrutiny following the East River helicopter crash that killed five passengers on Sunday.
The victims — Trevor Cadigan and Brian McDaniel of Dallas, Carla Vallejos Blanco of Argentina and Daniel Thompson and Tristan Hill, employees of the helicopter company — were on a private chartered sightseeing flight above Manhattan when pilot Richard Vance of Connecticut issued an engine failure mayday call moments before the chopper crashed into the East River.
The helicopter tipped over and submerged into the frigid waters despite National Transportation Safety Board investigators saying the aircraft’s flotation devices properly inflated, trapping the five passengers who were secured by the safety harnesses that would enable them to lean out of the aircraft to take photos of the skyline.
Once mainly patronized by professional photographers, such flights have grown increasingly popular with tourists here in New York City as well as Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and other cities. Sunday's private flight was booked through FlyNYON, and the chopper was owned by Liberty Helicopters, which has now had three crashes in 11 years.
“It’s not regulated, and it should not be allowed,” aviation lawyer Gary Robb told The New York Times about the open-door flights. “It’s like allowing someone to walk on the wing of an airplane, and in my judgment poses too much of a risk.”
The NTSB said Monday afternoon that it is legal for the chopper to have its doors open.
The Times reported that passengers on the fatal flight were shown a 10-minute video before takeoff that indicated there was a knife attached to their harnesses in the event they were trapped in their seats, but were not shown how to cut through the straps should they land in water.
Vance was able to free himself and was rescued by a tugboat that was returning to its Staten Island base when it responded to the pilot’s mayday call. The vessel tied the helicopter to keep it from sinking to the bottom of the East River.
Vance spoke with investigators after the crash and will be interviewed by the NTSB. Both FlyNYON and Liberty Helicopters said they would cooperate with federal investigations into the crash.
“NY on Air is terribly saddened to acknowledge that its customers were passengers on the Liberty Helicopters flight that went down in the East River last night,” FlyNYON wrote Monday on Instagram, where so many of its passengers post “shoe selfies” above the cities the company runs photo flight tours. “We extend our deepest sympathies to the family members and loved ones of those involved in this tragic event.”