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A Ban on NYC Tourism Helicopters is Not the Remedy

The first lawsuit has been filed in a deadly helicopter crash that killed five aerial photographers and videographers participating in a night flight over New York City. The helicopter, reportedly, suddenly plunged into the icy waters of the East River after a reported “engine failure” shortly into the flight. The sole survivor was the chopper’s pilot.

According to the New York Daily News, the parents of videojournalist Trevor Cadigan, 26, have filed suit in Manhattan against the pilot and the company, Liberty Helicopters. It is widely believed the five passengers drowned due to an inability to escape from their safety harnesses once the helicopter submerged in the water.

As an aerial photographer and certificated FAA Pilot with nearly 1,000 hours of flight experience in fixed wing and rotorcraft aircraft, I find the above reports nauseating and grossly unacceptable. It is the pilot in command’s responsibility to ensure the safe outcome of any flight. Pilots are constantly training to prepare for the unexpected, especially on night flights. While the pilot of this flight is to be commended for landing on the water, and not on the populated streets of Manhattan, he encountered the unexpected issue of the skid floats not properly inflating which resulted in the aircraft tipping over on contact with the water. The passengers were very likely - and understandably - in a state of panic, and somehow unable to detach themselves from harnesses hooked behind their backs. They drowned and the pilot survived.

What is not clear is the extent of the pre-flight briefing the passengers received before boarding the aircraft. That is one of the pilot in command’s chief duties before taking off; to ensure the safe outcome of a flight, and to make sure passengers know what to do if the mission goes south. Helicopters have lower flight restriction minimums than fixed wing aircraft as the chopper’s blades generally “auto-rotate” if the aircraft loses power and it should slowly descend. Amateur video shows this aircraft dropping like a fast rock into the river. There is plenty of blame to go around, but we will not know the full results until the NTSB releases their final report, which can can take upwards of a year.

But that doesn’t stop some politicos calling for an out-and-out ban on tourism helicopters in New York City. Senator Chuck Schumer has asked for a FAA ban on Liberty Tours while Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said: “My wish is no (helicopter) tourism at all, period, none.”

No one can deny this is indeed a tragedy, and one that possibly could have been prevented, but to kill an entire industry/mode of transportation from this incident is not the remedy.

Let's take a look at the facts:

According to the latest FAA data, ending in the year 2016, there were 106 total helicopter accidents in the U.S. Seventeen of these accidents resulted in fatalities. The trend for the previous 5 years indicates this number decreasing each year. By comparison, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that 37,461 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2016. Where are the politicians banning automobiles? This is an outrage!

The rail industry, while better than the automotive industry, claimed 805 lives in 2016 based on 10,927 accidents/incidents according to Statista.

I know many politicians rely on helicopters to jettison them to certain parts of the state and country they need to be. Oftentimes, they themselves are responding to their constituents’ emergencies. They rely on helicopters because of their statistically impeccable record of safety. A good pilot always gets a thorough weather briefing, and in kind, should also brief their passengers to be ready for “what if”.

There lately is a “knee-jerk” reaction to ban something one doesn’t like, to appease a very small portion of the population for their personal peeves. In Borough President Brewer’s case, the ulterior motive is to appease her Upper West Side constituents’ complaints from helicopter noise. Unless, of course, that helicopter was taking Ms. Brewer up to Albany to complain about it.

I truly, truly feel devastated for the families of those who perished in Sunday’s deadly accident. It could have easily been me, but I’d hope my family wouldn’t go out of their way to ban an entire industry over an accident. Just as in a 2009 fatal accident over the Hudson River when a fixed wing airplane deviated from its altitude and struck, coincidentally, another Liberty Tours helicopter, killing all in the air, the FAA acted swiftly. They did not totally ban private airplanes and tourist helicopters, but they prescribed assigned altitudes for each to fly at. General aviation airplanes can fly between 1,000 feet and 1,300 feet MSL and helicopters outside of these altitudes. If either mode needs to be in each others’ altitudes, they can coordinate with Air Traffic Control to ensure the safe outcome of their flights.

As I mentioned earlier, I have flown many photo flights both as a pilot and as a photographer strapped to a harness in an open door aircraft. The FAA said in a statement: “We are giving urgent attention to the use of harnesses specifically for aerial photography flights…“As a matter of overall safety awareness, we are preparing further communications and educational outreach to aerial photography operators and consumers on the use of these harnesses.”

Perhaps there may be a certification or educational course one must take and pass, something in writing in LARGE PRINT that the photographer would have to be signed off on in order to board an open door aircraft flight. Every new rule or regulation is the result of a gross error. I hope this horrible tragedy leads to positive and productive change. A ban helps no one.


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