Series of accidents puts spotlight on sightseeing helicopter safety

World Today

Helicopter tours are becoming increasingly popular, but a series of recent accidents have some beginning to question their safety. A week ago, a sightseeing helicopter crashed in New York City’s East River, killing five people. And in February, a helicopter flying in the Grand Canyon National Park burst into flames and killed five.

Karina Huber has more.

The safety of open-door helicopter tours are the subject of scrutiny after a deadly accident in New York’s East River. Aviation experts warn that passengers, who are allowed to fly without doors as long as they are harnessed, are not being properly trained.

“If these completely unforgiving harnesses – that are almost impossible to get out of – are required in order to have open cockpit flights, then safety almost demands that you don’t have open-cockpit flights,” according to Mike Slack, managing partner at Slack & Davis.

On Friday, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced a temporary ban on open-door helicopter tours. The administration also said it would also look into its rules regulating helicopter flights in general. 

According to the United States Helicopter Safety Team, there were 121 reported helicopter accidents killing 34 people in the U.S. in 2017.

Slack, who represents family members of victims of helicopter crashes, says tour operators are stretching themselves thin, attempting to maximize profits by working their pilots and equipment for long stretches of time.

“Long hours mean fatigue for pilots, overutilization for the helicopters, and the unusual weather circumstances, that many times the pilots are not experienced with when they become pilots in a new area,” Slack said.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s website provides information about tour operators’ safety records, but few make use of the service.

Liberty Helicopters, which owned and operated the helicopter that crashed last week, is one of the companies with a spotty record. In 2009, one of its helicopters collided with a plane over the Hudson River, killing six people on the helicopter and three on the plane. Two years before that, the company was involved in another non-fatal crash.

Slack says some operators are worse than others, but safety is a problem within the entire industry.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think it is worth the risk,” Slack explained.  “Typically, there is a lot of tragedy associated with it, because typically friends and family do it together. So when there is a bad outcome, it wipes out a family unit or a group of friends.”

 The victims in last week’s crash consisted of two high school friends, two colleagues and a tourist from Argentina. All were under the age of 35.