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Only a few weeks ago, FlyNYON seemed unstoppable.
The company that specializes in doors-off helicopter photo flights was aggressively expanding throughout the U.S., including in Las Vegas, the site of HAI Heli-Expo 2018. FlyNYON invested heavily to make a splash at the show, hosting a lavish “Heli-Expo After Party” at Omnia Nightclub at Caesars Palace on Feb. 27.
Three weeks later, five people are dead and FlyNYON’s signature photo flights are being halted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The FAA tweeted on March 16 that it will be ordering no more doors-off operations involving restraints that cannot be released quickly in an emergency. On March 11, five FlyNYON passengers drowned when the Liberty Helicopters Airbus AS350 B2 they were riding in made a forced landing to New York City’s East River.
Supplemental harnesses meant to keep the passengers securely inside the helicopter turned deadly when they were unable to free themselves as the aircraft capsized and sank. Only the pilot, who was using the helicopter’s normal restraint system, managed to escape.
“Helicopter operators, pilots, and consumers should be aware of the hazard from supplemental restraint devices during an emergency evacuation during ‘doors off’ flights. The FAA will order operators and pilots to take immediate action to control/mitigate this risk,” the agency tweeted.
“Additionally, the FAA will conduct a top to bottom review of its rules governing these flights to examine any potential misapplication that could create safety gaps for passengers.”
With its swift response to the New York City crash, the FAA is trying to play catch-up after years in which FlyNYON’s parent company, NYONair, developed its business model with little regulatory interference.
NYONair has never attempted to fly under the radar — visibility and hype have been central to its success. But in the company’s rush to create and capitalize on a social media craze for extreme helicopter experiences, has anyone been overseeing the safety of its doors-off flights?
‘The Birthplace of the #ShoeSelfie’
Doors-off flights are not unusual in the civil helicopter industry. They’re common in vertical reference operations, in aerial photography and survey flights, and in almost any light helicopter without air conditioning during the hot summer months.
However, pilots and crewmembers who conduct them regularly know that they require extra care. Instances of occupants falling out of helicopters are rare, but loose objects fly out of helicopter cabins with much greater regularity. Even small objects have caused catastrophic accidents after striking helicopter tail rotors.
Helicopters are expensive, and until recently, most of the photographers who chartered them for aerial photo shoots were professionals on paying assignments. That was the customer base initially catered to by NY on Air (or NYONair), whose CEO is Patrick Day, Jr., the son of Liberty Helicopters’ Patrick Day, Sr.
NYONair.com describes the company as an “aviation services company that bridges the worlds of aviation, customer experience, and media.” That website is still targeted toward professional and corporate clients seeking aerial photography, special event coverage, real estate and architectural surveys, and more.
But NYONair’s early social media savvy had a side effect: it made doors-off helicopter photo flights seem incredibly cool. NYONair currently has more than 450,000 followers on Instagram, and nearly that many on Facebook. Its social media content has long been dominated by “shoe selfies” — shots of photographers’ legs dangling from the open door of a helicopter over busy cityscapes.
These in-flight shoe selfies started as grab shots that professional photographers shared with their own social media followings. But Pat Day, Jr., realized that they could be marketed to ordinary Instagrammers who wanted to stand out from their peers. Thus was born FlyNYON, a spinoff helicopter service that, like more traditional tour operators, targets the general public.
As Day recalled in his LinkedIn profile, “In the early days of social media I recognized the power of audience gathering and crowd-sourcing as a way to gain a competitive edge.” (Day and NYONair/FlyNYON did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)
Day described how social media allowed NYONair to gain direct access to consumers, bypassing the middlemen who promote traditional helicopter sightseeing tours. He continued, “My direct relationship with consumers helped me realize, today’s audience seeks more than just traditional aerial flights. They’re seeking a differentiated experience, with unique access to the skies that can be projected outward on their social channels.”
With FlyNYON, Day adopted a crowdsourcing model that allows passengers to book just a single seat on a doors-off flight, rather than chartering an entire helicopter. That has allowed FlyNYON to offer short flights for as low as $99 per seat, well within the reach of the average Instagrammer.
As Day explained, “Direct access to our customer has allowed flexibility in booking procedures and schedules. We are able to crowdsource FlyNYON flights and maximize load factor on every single flight. No empty seats mean greater efficiencies and margins for the business.”
This type of crowdsourcing model is gaining increasing traction in the aviation industry as a way to maximize the utilization of charter aircraft. It’s also the type of model envisioned for future urban air mobility concepts involving electronic vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, including the Elevate concept proposed by Uber.
But moving people from point A to point B as efficiently as possible is an entirely different operating model than traditional doors-off helicopter photo flights, which typically involve a limited number of people in the aircraft, and intense coordination between pilot and photographer to achieve mission objectives. This coordination naturally includes a review of the risks associated with doors-off flying, and measures to address them.
Initially, NYONair relied exclusively on established 14 Code of Federal Regulations part 135 operators, such as Liberty, to operate its doors-off flights. As it expanded beyond the New York City area into new geographic markets — including Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco — it sought partnerships with additional helicopter operators.
Vertical spoke with a helicopter pilot whose company conducted some doors-off flights for FlyNYON. The pilot, who asked not to be named, said that FlyNYON representatives provided his company with harnesses and a general idea of what they wanted, but not much else. That meant it was up to the local helicopter company and its pilots to decide how to approach the safety aspects of the flights, including the passenger briefings.
“It was an extremely intense briefing,” the pilot recalled of his own briefings for FlyNYON passengers, which he said included careful instructions on how to get into and out of their harnesses, how to move inside the helicopter, and the importance of securing all loose objects. Even so, he said, he was acutely aware during each flight of the potential for passengers to do something unexpected.
“It’s one thing to brief a person you’re working with all the time,” he said. But with FlyNYON’s crowdsourcing approach, “they basically bundle up people who don’t really know each other,” he continued. “It’s a petri dish experiment waiting for an accident to happen.”
Eventually, according to the pilot, his company decided that the extra revenue from FlyNYON flights wasn’t worth the associated risk and labor. “It just got to the point where we decided we didn’t want to do it anymore,” he told Vertical.
That labor-intensive approach to passenger safety briefings is a far cry from the briefing that was described by the photographer and journalist Eric Adams, who was in one of two other Liberty helicopters who departed on doors-off FlyNYON photo flights at the same time as the accident helicopter on March 11. In an article for The Drive, and in subsequent conversations with Vertical, Adams recalled a minimalist briefing centered around a short safety video.
“There were no pilots present, and no one who appeared to be in any real leadership role there,” he wrote on The Drive. Adams acknowledged that the video described how the passengers’ harnesses worked, and how a knife could be used to cut the harnesses free from the aircraft in the event of an emergency. But he said that no one pointed out the actual location of the knife once he had his harness on, and neither did they point out where his harness was connected to the aircraft.
As for the pilot of the helicopter, Adams told Vertical, “I didn’t see him until he got in next to me.” And he said there were no microphones on the passenger headsets, so passengers could not speak to the pilot at any time during the flight, although they could hear the pilot’s instructions.
According to unnamed officials who spoke to ABC News, the pilot Richard Vance told New York City police investigators that a passenger’s harness became entangled with a fuel lever on the AS350 B2 in flight, resulting in a loss of engine power and forced landing in the East River. In older models of AS350 series helicopters including the B2, the fuel flow control lever and fuel shut-off control level are located on the floor of the aircraft, adjacent to the pilot’s seat.
The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have not confirmed the ABC News report. However, the pilot made a mayday call declaring engine failure before the forced landing, and the NTSB reported on March 15 that a teardown of the helicopter’s engine did not yield any evidence of abnormalities.
Although the helicopter was equipped with skid-mounted floats, bystander video of the forced landing posted to social media shows an apparent failure of the starboard pontoons. The aircraft rolled to the right soon after impacting the water.
Vance, who was wearing only the aircraft’s normal restraint system, and not an additional harness, was able to escape from the sinking aircraft. The passengers were not, and police and fire divers had to cut them out of their harnesses under water.
It is not clear that any kind of introductory safety briefing would have changed the outcome once the aircraft hit the cold river. Jon Ehm is the training coordinator for Survival Systems of Groton, Connecticut, which conducts helicopter underwater egress training. He said that the combination of sensations experienced when a helicopter goes under water can be “overwhelming” for any person without previous egress training — and that’s even without harnesses binding them to the aircraft.
“The things that you experience in a training environment, there’s no substitute for that,” he said. “To the extent a safety brief can address that, it’s pretty limited.”
Red Flags Overlooked
In hindsight, there are obvious safety concerns associated with strapping inexperienced strangers into hard-to-release harnesses, packing them into helicopters with the doors removed, and then encouraging them to snap photos of their feet over major metropolitan areas. And while the passengers in the March 11 accident died from drowning, there is no guarantee that a forced landing on land would have had a better result.
Airbus AS350 series helicopters such as the accident aircraft have recently come under scrutiny for lacking crash-resistant fuel systems. This has resulted in some horrific post-crash fires in otherwise survivable accidents, as was recently seen in the Papillon Airways crash at the Grand Canyon on Feb. 10, which also resulted in the deaths of five people. Post-crash fires in AS350 models have started within seconds of impact, and the harnesses used by FlyNYON would have significantly delayed passenger egress following any type of hard landing.
Although some individual pilots and operators have voiced concerns about FlyNYON’s operations, prior to the March 11 accident, the helicopter industry as a whole did not sound an alarm. Indeed, Vertical collaborated with FlyNYON Vegas for an air-to-air photo shoot at Heli-Expo, and while this was not typical of the company’s crowdsourced flights (among other things, it was extensively briefed, and the doors stayed on), we were favorably impressed by the professionalism of the FlyNYON employees who worked with us.
Last year, FlyNYON even received a 2017 Safety Award from the Eastern Region Helicopter Council for its commitment to ground and flight safety (a recognition that now features prominently on the home page of FlyNYON.com).
While other tour helicopter operators have also developed doors-off offerings, unlike FlyNYON, few if any of these operators encourage passengers to get out of their seats during flight. Doors-off tours are popular in Hawaii, and over a two-year period, members of the Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS) evaluated whether doors-off flights should be permitted under TOPS standards.
TOPS member Hawaii Helicopters, which is owned by Air Methods, prepared a risk assessment that generally supported the measure, and in 2016, the TOPS safety committee concluded that it is possible to safely conduct doors-off flights, given certain control measures.
Nevertheless, TOPS members eventually backed away from the idea, voting to include “doors on” as an official requirement of the TOPS standard at a meeting in October 2017. Helicopter Association International (HAI) has also made doors on a requirement for tour operators seeking accreditation under the new HAI Accreditation Program of Safety.
HAI president Matt Zuccaro acknowledged that there are differing attitudes toward doors-off tours within the operator community. However, because removing doors introduces additional safety concerns that must be mitigated, HAI decided that doors on is an appropriate element of the “higher standard” that the accreditation program seeks to encourage, he said.
Liberty Helicopters identifies itself as a founding member of TOPS, but it withdrew from the organization at the beginning of 2017. Nevertheless, it retained the TOPS logo on its website and marketing materials, in violation of TOPS policy, until Vertical inquired about it in the days after the March 11 crash.
(Liberty also has logos on its various websites indicating that it holds an Argus Gold rating, and is a Registered with Wyvern operator. An Argus employee told Vertical over the phone that Liberty is not currently rated by Argus, and a Wyvern employee said that neither is the company currently Registered with Wyvern.)
Liberty has a significant record of accidents, incidents, and FAA violations, and in the wake of the East River crash, it has attracted most of the media’s scrutiny. At a speaking event on March 12, New York Senator Chuck Schumer called on the FAA to suspend Liberty’s part 135 operating certificate until the company’s safety record and the circumstances of the crash can be fully assessed. “There are too many allegations, no one knows what’s happened,” he said. “I don’t think Liberty should be flying until we get to the bottom of this.”
Despite the close ties between Liberty and FlyNYON — Patrick Day, Jr. is still listed on the Liberty Helicopters Charter website as VP of charter and aircraft management — FlyNYON and NYONair have attracted much less attention. And the brands have been actively seeking to distance themselves from Liberty, as with the March 12 statement, “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.”
Yet FlyNYON seems to have assumed much of the responsibility for its customers’ safety during the March 11 flights out of the Helo Kearny Heliport. As Adams recalled, the flight was marketed wholly under the FlyNYON brand, and it appeared to be FlyNYON employees who conducted the safety briefing and installed passengers in the aircraft. “The only mention I saw of Liberty Helicopters was on the side of the helicopter when we got there,” he said.
Meanwhile, FlyNYON has been expanding its operations not only as a booking agent, but as a part 135 air carrier, in the New York area and elsewhere. In the days before the accident, FlyNYON advertised job openings for nine to 10 pilots for the upcoming summer season in New York City, for a fleet including Bell 206L3 Long Rangers, AS350 B3s, and AS355 FXs. In a personal Facebook post promoting the hiring on March 6, Day identified FlyNYON as “a 135 operator (flawless certificate).”
The FAA confirmed that FlyNYON and NYONair are doing business under a part 135 operating certificate registered as East West Helicopter LLC. There are six aircraft currently listed on the certificate, which was issued in June 2008, four years before the founding of NYONair in 2012.
However, the FAA refused to identify who is listed as the director of operations, chief pilot, and director of maintenance on the certificate — information that, with the possible exception of the director of maintenance, does not appear on the East West, FlyNYON, or NYONair websites. So it’s not evident to the public who within the company is responsible for overseeing the certificate’s flight operations and safety (a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Vertical is pending).
Vertical called East West Helicopter LLC to speak with president Patric Wells, leaving two messages for him with a company employee. Wells did not return our calls.
Federal aviation regulations currently provide a fair amount of leeway for how aerial photography flights are conducted, as such flights have not, in the past, been aggressively marketed to the general public. However, it is now evident that the scrutiny brought on by the March 11 accident will change that.
Aviation attorney Gary Robb has already filed the first lawsuit in the case, on behalf of the parents of Trevor Cadigan, one of the five victims. The complaint names FlyNYON and NYONair as defendants, in addition to Liberty Helicopters and pilot Richard Vance.
Speaking with Vertical, Robb described the situation faced by Cadigan and his fellow passengers as a “death trap”: hanging upside down in frigid water, tightly harnessed with the release inaccessible in the back.
“It is the family’s greatest desire that this kind of open-door helicopter operation be forever terminated,” he said.