A New York City helicopter-tour company has been involved in three crashes in nearly 11 years — including a fatal one Sunday — leading the top Democratic senator to call Monday for federal authorities to suspend its license.
The Federal Aviation Administration should suspend the license for Liberty Helicopters after the Sunday crash in the East River that killed five passengers, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York told 1010 Wins radio on Monday.
“I am calling on the FAA to issue an emergency order and suspend Liberty Helicopter’s 135 operating certificate until their safety record and the circumstances of this crash are fully assessed,” Schumer said. “Three is too many, there are too many allegations, no one knows what’s happened. I don’t think Liberty should be flying until we get to the bottom of this.”
The National Transportation Safety Board sent 14 people to investigate the incident. The investigators will try to determine what caused the crash by studying human factors such as what the crew and passengers were doing during the flight.
They also will look at equipment and whether there was a mechanical failure aboard the aircraft. Emergency divers had to remove the passengers from tight harnesses while they were upside down.
The tour company, Liberty Helicopters, and the type of helicopter involved have been involved in other crashes for a variety of reasons, according to investigators.
“We are focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and on fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB investigations,” the company said in a statement on its website, while declining to respond to press inquiries.
One of the passengers killed in the crash was Dallas firefighter Brian McDaniel.
Michael Slack, an aviation lawyer and licensed pilot with Slack & Davis in Austin, said if a 26-year-old firefighter trained to get out of tangled ropes or hoses couldn’t get out of the seat harness, it raises questions about the briefing for passengers before the flight and how easy the equipment is to use.
“You’ve got to figure the odds of that guy getting out are real good depending upon seating position,” Slack said. “There’s either some type of issue with the restraints or not opening the door soon enough so that they can get out. Once the water pressure is great enough, they won’t be able to open those doors.”
Pictures from the passengers show shoulder harnesses, but not the precise buckle or clasp that the manufacturer installed on this helicopter, Slack said.
“Those things are supposed to have a quick-release,” Slack said. Passengers “are supposed to be briefed ahead of time.”
A passenger’s bag may have inadvertently hit the emergency fuel shutoff button, leading to the crash, according to CNN and ABC News, citing senior law enforcement officials they didn’t name.
“That’s bizarre,” Slack said. “That should be an overhead cutoff. How did an unrestrained bag wind up on the ceiling? If that’s a risk known to the pilot, why did the pilot allow an unrestrained bag in the cabin?”
Another facet of the investigation is expected to focus on why the helicopter tipped over at all on relatively calm water. Floats on the aircraft’s landing skids appeared to deflate on the right side, allowing the helicopter to tip to the right and roll into the water.
“It’s hard to draw conclusions” about what could have caused the tipping, Slack said.
Liberty had a previous fatal crash in 2009. One of its AS350BA helicopters — a similar model to the latest crash — collided with a Piper PA-32R-300 plane over the Hudson River near Hoboken, according to NTSB.
All nine people on both aircraft — a pilot and five passengers in the helicopter and a pilot and two passengers in the plane — died.
The difficulties pilots have seeing and avoiding each other under those conditions until the final seconds before the collision caused the crash, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. An air-traffic controller’s unrelated personal call at the Teterboro Airport, which distracted him from connecting the plane’s pilot with controllers at Newark Airport, helped cause the crash, the board found.
“This collision could have been prevented,” the former board chairman, Deborah Hersman, said at the time. “While traffic alerts go a long way in helping pilots ‘see and avoid’ other aircraft, these technologies are not, in and of themselves, enough to keep us safe.”
A Liberty Eurocopter EC 130 B4 crashed into the Hudson River on July 7, 2007. The pilot and seven passengers were uninjured and rescued from the craft.
The pilot described a loud bang and an abnormal vibration about 350 feet off the ground as one of the main rotor blades came apart, according to NTSB. The pilot was able to land fairly softly on the river’s choppy water, and the passengers were all wearing life vests.
This type of helicopter, which was previously known as a Eurocopter AS350 and now as an Airbus H125, have been involved in other fatal crashes.
An AS350 B3e medical helicopter operated by Air Methods Corp. crashed soon after lifting off from a medical center in Frisco, Colo., on July 3, 2015. The pilot was killed and two flight nurses were seriously injured in the post-crash fire.
The crash was caused by depleted hydraulic pressure in the tail rotor, according to NTSB.
Before taking off, the pilot was supposed to check the hydraulic system by turning it off and then back on, but the board found that he probably didn’t turn it back on.
The pilot also might have felt the problem in his foot-pedal controls and been able to land safely if he had checked while hovering after liftoff, the board found.
An AS350-B2 operated by Sundance Helicopters crashed during a twilight sightseeing trip about 14 miles each of Las Vegas on Dec. 7, 2011. The pilot and four passengers were killed.
Inadequate maintenance was blamed for that crash. A flight-control rod became separated during the flight after a degraded self-locking nut and improperly installed split pin failed, rendering the helicopter uncontrollable, the NTSB found. The craft plummeted 2,500 feet per minute before impact, the board found.