FlyNYON changes equipment, but not business model, after fatal accident

When five FlyNYON passengers on a doors-off helicopter photo flight drowned in New York City’s East River earlier this year, many of us in the helicopter industry reacted with shock and disbelief.

However, photos like this one suggest that FlyNYON is still allowing some hazards, like loose-fitting shoes, to slip through the cracks.
FlyNYON claims to have made its doors-off helicopter photo flights safer. However, photos like this one taken Sept. 2 suggest that the company is still allowing some hazards, like loose-fitting shoes, to slip through the cracks. Lynda Chalker Doku Photo
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The shock came from the news that no passengers survived what bystander video indicated was a relatively low-impact forced landing to the water. The Airbus AS350 B2 AStar had been chartered from Liberty Helicopters for one of FlyNYON’s signature doors-off flights over Manhattan, and like most of the tour helicopters flying around New York City, it was equipped with an emergency flotation system.

Although the right-side pontoons failed, causing the helicopter to overturn in the water, the aircraft did not sink to the bottom of the river. Under more typical circumstances, most or all of the passengers might have ended up like the pilot: cold and wet, but with only minor physical injuries.

But these weren’t typical circumstances. At a press conference on the banks of the East River that night, New York City Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro explained that rescue divers had discovered the passengers tightly harnessed to the aircraft, and it soon became evident that these supplemental harnesses — intended to keep the passengers safely inside the helicopter — had in fact prevented their underwater escape.

That’s when shock turned to disbelief that the five victims, none of whom were experienced around helicopters, should have been placed in the type of risky, unforgiving scenario that is typically reserved for professional aerial photographers.

In the wake of the March 11 accident, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned doors-off flights using passenger restraints that cannot be released quickly in an emergency. But the agency made it relatively easy for operators to obtain approval to use supplemental harnesses with some type of quick release system. Meanwhile, the FAA has taken no major steps to address other risks associated with leaning out of the open door of a helicopter in flight, or placed restrictions on who can do so.

That has allowed FlyNYON to return to business as usual, aggressively marketing its doors-off flights on social media with an emphasis on “shoe selfies” — shots of the person’s feet outside the helicopter. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported that the accident sequence on March 11 began when the front seat passenger leaned back to take a shoe selfie (and caught his tether on the B2 AStar’s floor-mounted fuel lever), but that has not discouraged FlyNYON from posting captions like “Upgrade your shoe selfie game” or “#ShoeSelfie it up this summer.”

FlyNYON maintains that it has made significant changes to its operations since March 11, with the goal of preventing a similar tragedy. For one, it is no longer chartering AStars from Liberty and is instead conducting its doors-off flights using its own Bell 206L LongRangers, which do not have the same fuel lever vulnerability. FlyNYON has also brought in outside consultants to evaluate its equipment and procedures, and to help it implement a safety management system (SMS).

Indeed, the company is so confident that it is doing everything it can to mitigate risks that in August it invited me to its headquarters in Kearny Point, New Jersey, to witness these changes firsthand. There, I had the opportunity to examine the company’s new FAA-approved harnesses and quick release systems, which are a vast improvement over the inexpensive construction-grade harnesses it was using before.

Even after the March 11 accident, shoe selfies are still central to FlyNYON's marketing.
Even after the March 11 accident, shoe selfies are still central to FlyNYON’s marketing. The company’s own promotional material routinely highlights shoes that look good in photos, not necessarily ones that are practical for flight. Instagram.com/flynyon Screenshot

Yet I was left with other concerns. Photos posted by passengers to social media since the accident reveal that FlyNYON is still allowing some hazards to slip through the cracks — notably loose-fitting shoes, which could pose a hazard to people on the ground, or cause another catastrophic crash if they were to fly off and hit the tail rotor.

The company continues to market its doors-off flights to tourists and amateur photographers with no experience in the challenges and risks of aerial photography. These inexperienced passengers typically have no one supervising their activities in the cabin, and some of them are foreign tourists with very little grasp of the English language, making it questionable how well they understand the complex safety briefing required for such a flight.

FlyNYON’s operations straddle a fine line between aerial tourism and the less stringently regulated world of aerial photography, and so far the FAA has seen fit to allow them to continue as aerial photo flights under the current regulatory framework. But the higher risks associated with these types of flights raise the question of whether they should be available to just anyone — and, if not, how to regulate them effectively.

The NYON experience

FlyNYON is wholly owned by NYONair (originally known as “NY On Air”), which built an impressive presence on social media through its work with high-profile photographers like Vincent Laforet. But according to the companies’ CEO, Patrick Day, Jr., his aim was always to offer the doors-off experience to a less skilled, nonprofessional audience — a goal that is reflected in FlyNYON’s polished headquarters building in the developing Kearny Point business district northeast of Newark Liberty International Airport.

The attractive modern space, which FlyNYON describes as a “terminal,” appears to have been designed with Instagram front of mind. But 48-year-old Day told me that the philosophy behind the terminal was in fact inspired by his mother, who he said was always a nervous flyer despite the fact that her husband and son spent much of their lives in the air. (Patrick Day, Sr., is a Vietnam veteran who became Liberty Helicopters’ director of operations, and Patrick Day, Jr., who is also a pilot, spent a number of years flying for Liberty before launching NYONair.)

“She didn’t understand that walking the streets of Manhattan, it’s 10 times more dangerous than going up in a helicopter that her son flew, her husband flew,” Day said, explaining that the bright, spacious terminal is designed to put anxious passengers at ease. Friends and family members who can’t quite bring themselves to go up on a flight can nevertheless get a taste of the experience through FlyNYON’s virtual reality simulator, which does an impressive job of replicating aerial views over New York City’s famous landmarks.

FlyNYON offers a virtual reality helicopter flight experience at its Kearny Point headquarters.
FlyNYON offers a virtual reality helicopter flight experience at its Kearny Point headquarters. “That was three years of work and programming and content gathering,” said Patrick Day. FlyNYON Photo

We had agreed before my own visit that I would not be going for a flight — I did not want to provide an implicit endorsement or condemnation of the company by making that decision at the last minute. However, FlyNYON was eager to walk me through the process that its passengers go through, right up to boarding the aircraft. As a condition of being allowed onto the ramp area, I signed FlyNYON’s standard release of liability, which reminded me that “accidents can happen and can be based on a variety of human factors,” and that some risks associated with its activities “can be attributable to the negligence, inattention, or inexperience of [the] participant.”

With that out of the way, terminal manager Sarah Vrablik had me step on a digital scale and recorded my weight. This is something I was specifically looking for, as Day had previously discouraged his employees from weighing passengers at the terminal (“Declared weights are fine for now,” he wrote in an email dated Jan. 1, 2018). As a pilot, I appreciated that FlyNYON would have the information it needed from me to accurately calculate the aircraft’s weight and balance, although I could certainly also relate to the average passenger’s discomfort with being weighed in public.

Vrablik then showed me into the glass-enclosed room off the main lobby where passengers sit around a table to receive an initial safety briefing in the form of a short video. The video covers a lot of ground in the space of about five-and-a-half minutes, reviewing policies specific to FlyNYON’s doors-off flights — including the use of harnesses, and the requirement that all pockets be emptied before the flight — as well as more general information such as the location of the fire extinguisher, first aid kit, and emergency locator transmitter (ELT) switch.

For those passengers who don’t speak English, there are briefing cards that translate these safety instructions into a variety of languages. Vrablik guessed that around a quarter of FlyNYON’s passengers aren’t fluent in English, although she said there is usually someone in their group who can translate for them.

From there, Vrablik showed me into the harness fitting room, which is not visible from the main lobby. Before the March 11 accident, FlyNYON was using a combination of inexpensive yellow fall protection harnesses — available from stores like Home Depot — and more expensive, FAA-certified blue harnesses, acquired through Air Rescue Systems (ARS).

Internal company emails later revealed that pilots had expressed safety concerns about the yellow harnesses, which were a poor fit for many of FlyNYON’s smaller passengers. Because the single D-ring attachment point on the yellow harnesses, located between the shoulders, was virtually inaccessible to the wearer, the company had provided passengers with emergency cutting tools to free themselves if necessary. Yet at least two weeks before the accident, pilots had demonstrated that these cutting tools were ineffective for their intended purpose (as was also demonstrated in a video in this Wired story).

This photo taken immediately before the March 11 accident shows the yellow fall protection harnesses with inaccessible attachment points worn by passengers on that flight.
This photo taken immediately before the March 11 accident shows the yellow fall protection harnesses with inaccessible attachment points worn by passengers on that flight. FlyNYON is now using FAA-approved harnesses and quick release systems instead. Eric Adams Photo

Since the accident, FlyNYON has started using the blue style of harnesses exclusively. In keeping with the FAA’s new guidelines for supplemental passenger restraints, FlyNYON is also using an FAA-approved quick release system from ARS, which disconnects the tether from the harness’s front attachment point using a swift, deliberate pull that would be difficult to achieve inadvertently.

Vrablik had me step into a blue harness and efficiently went about fitting it to my body. Then, she handed me a demonstration model of the quick release system and had me practice on it a few times. As a non-flying journalist, I was allowed to keep my purse and notebook on my person, but she showed me where actual passengers would be required to store their excess belongings. She waved a metal detector wand over me to ensure I hadn’t left any potentially hazardous objects in my pockets, and showed me how to secure my phone in an approved holder for flight.

Vrablik said that FlyNYON’s customer experience agents, or “CXs,” also perform an initial check of passengers’ shoes at this point. She explained that FlyNYON’s policy is for loose-fitting shoes to be secured or, alternately, removed at the helicopter and stored in the baggage compartment during flight.

Ready for takeoff

From there, we got into a van and drove a short distance to the fenced-in ramp area where the helicopters are based. Pilot Dave Galm met us at the gate. From this point, he explained, FlyNYON’s pilots take over the briefing process, although the CXs remain with the passengers to help with the loading process.

We walked over to one of FlyNYON’s LongRangers, where Galm reiterated many of the points I had seen in the safety video. He provided me with a personal flotation device and reviewed the activation procedures with me. Then he had me sit in the aircraft and buckle in using the aircraft’s normal seat belt and shoulder harness, while he attached a tether to the supplemental harness I was wearing. With everything in place, he had me reach down, locate the distinctive beaded handle on the quick release system, and practice releasing it. I managed it without too much difficulty, but he had me try it again for good measure.

Galm explained that FlyNYON does not “hot load” passengers with the rotors turning, which is a common practice in tour operations. The briefing of passengers at the helicopter “is all designed to be as slow and level and calm as possible,” he said. In addition to reviewing safety information, FlyNYON’s pilots take this opportunity to discuss which shots their passengers have in mind. As a provider of aerial photo flights rather than tours per se, FlyNYON cannot have pre-set routes, although not surprisingly many of its passengers are interested in the same handful of iconic New York landmarks: the Statue of Liberty, the Freedom Tower, Central Park.

This photo posted to the FlyNYON Instagram account in July shows one passenger flying with bare feet, an option for customers who show up with loose-fitting shoes.
FlyNYON resumed harnessed flights this summer using its own LongRangers. This photo posted to the FlyNYON Instagram account in July shows one passenger flying with bare feet, an option for customers who show up with loose-fitting shoes. Also evident are the headsets without microphones that FlyNYON has been using up to this point. FlyNYON Photo

According to Day, FlyNYON had made arrangements to lease its current fleet of LongRangers before the March 11 accident. Sitting in the left rear seat of one of them, I couldn’t help but remark upon the “broom closet,” containing flight control linkages, that separates the cockpit from the cabin in Bell 206 series helicopters. Unlike the unobstructed cabin of the AStar, the broom closet makes it particularly difficult for the pilot in a 206 to see what’s happening in the back. I also noticed that none of the passengers’ headsets had microphones, meaning that passengers would not be able to speak to the pilot during flight.

I understood that in a doors-off helicopter in flight, wind noise from active microphones would be impossibly disruptive. What I didn’t understand was why FlyNYON wasn’t using push-to-talk systems that would allow passengers to communicate with the pilot in an emergency — or to advise their pilot of potential hazards, as passengers are specifically instructed to do in FlyNYON’s video safety briefing.

Galm suggested that one reason might be because push-to-talk systems might be too complicated for inexperienced passengers to learn how to use. (Day later told me that the primary reason was because passenger communications would be too distracting for the pilot in New York City’s busy airspace.) Galm acknowledged that the LongRanger’s broom closet wasn’t ideal, but he said that so far, passengers haven’t had trouble getting his attention when necessary.

Galm and I also discussed FlyNYON’s policy regarding loose-fitting shoes, and he showed me how he tugs on passengers’ shoes to check them for security prior to flight. He said that if a passenger’s shoes have laces, he asks them to make sure they’re laced as tightly as possible (I was wearing very loosely laced sneakers myself). “What about slip-on shoes?” I asked. Galm said that he might allow them if they were very snug, but would generally prefer to have passengers remove them and fly barefoot instead.

Indeed, FlyNYON has shown barefoot passengers in its own promotional photos and videos. While removing shoes altogether eliminates one hazard, it also assumes that passengers will never need to quickly exit the helicopter in the presence of rocks or sharp objects — the same sort of blind optimism that might have also assumed they would never need to cut themselves free from the aircraft under water.

The FlyNYON vision

After we returned to the terminal and I removed my harness, I went upstairs to visit with Day in FlyNYON’s administrative offices. Several employees joined us for this on-the-record discussion, including FlyNYON chief of staff Jillian O’Brien and, via speakerphone, director of operations Brian Rosenberg. (Rosenberg has since left FlyNYON, as has the company’s chief pilot at the time of my visit, Morgan Kavanaugh.)

There was some inherent tension in our meeting. I had written critically about FlyNYON in the aftermath of the March 11 accident, including by sharing the contents of sensitive internal emails that had been leaked to the media. In response, FlyNYON had dug up a photo of Vertical publisher Mike Reyno from a February photo shoot in Las Vegas, and shared it on the NYONair Instagram account with the hashtag #VerticalFakeNews.

As the journalist and photographer Eric Adams described in a recent story for Popular Science, we weren’t alone in receiving this treatment. The NYON companies waged a particularly bitter social media war against the New York Times, and some paid NYON “brand ambassadors” jumped into the fray without disclosing their financial ties to NYON, potentially violating Federal Trade Commission guidelines for social media influencers. (Adams was on another FlyNYON photo flight at the same time as the accident flight, and he and I collaborated on reporting about safety concerns at the company.)

Despite this uncomfortable history, Reyno and I both appreciated FlyNYON’s willingness to open its doors to me, and I was happy to accept the invitation. Day was friendly and welcoming, and promised to be “very, very transparent.” And he didn’t hesitate to answer any of my questions, with the exception of one or two that bore directly on the ongoing NTSB investigation (as a party to the investigation, FlyNYON is limited in what it can disclose to the media).

Journalist and photographer Eric Adams, on another FlyNYON photo flight, captured this shot of Manhattan around the time of the accident on March 11.
Journalist and photographer Eric Adams, on another FlyNYON photo flight, captured this shot of Manhattan around the time of the accident on March 11. Patrick Day said that views like this are what inspired him to launch FlyNYON. Eric Adams Photo

I began by asking Day about the history of the NYON companies. He started by recalling his years flying the line at Liberty Helicopters, where he said he grew disillusioned with the “cattle herd” experience that is typical of many sightseeing operations: “get them loaded, get them in, get them out.” But the more direct motivation for NYON came after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when he spent some time shooting photos of the destruction from the air in support of first responders. Day was struck not only by how his aerial imagery took off on social media, but also by the awe-inspiring experience of flying back towards Manhattan one night and seeing the glittering city from the open door of a helicopter.

“I looked around, and I noticed that nobody was really in our space embracing social media, technology . . . aerial visuals,” he said. “At that moment I decided to start what at the time was called New York On Air.”

Initially, the company worked primarily with professional photographers, but Day told me that this was largely a strategy to create compelling content in order to attract a wider audience. “What I recognized is strong content drives eyeballs,” he said. “The vision was always to give people unobstructed views of whatever landmarks they were interested in looking at and taking pictures of.”

Day didn’t begin actively marketing the FlyNYON brand to the general public until late 2014, explaining that “we took a good year to vet, and go through, and ensure that we had looked at every scenario on the ground and in the air prior to offering it up.” Although business was relatively slow to begin with, he said, by the first quarter of last year, it had taken off: “I just think organically over time people started understanding what we were doing — that it wasn’t some kind of a fad, there was a mission to give people unobstructed views and a different perspective.”

As demand for FlyNYON’s services increased, it began chartering helicopters from Liberty to augment its own fleet. At the time of the accident, Patrick Day, Sr. was listed as the director of operations on FlyNYON’s 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) part 135 air carrier certificate as well as Liberty’s, and Patrick Day, Jr. was still listed as the VP of charter and aircraft management on the Liberty Helicopters Charter website. To me, however, Day described a relationship with Liberty that was more fraught than cozy. (“I was considered the outsider,” as he put it.)

After the accident, FlyNYON ceased chartering helicopters from Liberty, and Rosenberg replaced Patrick Day, Sr. as the company’s director of operations. FlyNYON flew ARS vice president Bob Cockell out to New Jersey to consult on harnesses and related equipment, and also hired Gary Grass of Abante Intelligent Solutions to help it develop an SMS — a methodical framework for assessing and mitigating risk.

As Rosenberg explained, an SMS isn’t something that can be enacted immediately; rather, “it’s something that over time is established and it becomes cultural within the company.” Thus, FlyNYON’s SMS is necessarily a work in progress, but Rosenberg said that the company has already used it to help guide decision-making around the reintroduction of harnesses for its doors-off flights.

FlyNYON reintroduced harnesses to its doors-off flights in order to provide
Former FlyNYON director of operations Brian Rosenberg said that the company reintroduced harnesses to its doors-off flights in order to provide “additional support and safety” to passengers as they move about in their seats (they are still required to wear seat belts in flight). FlyNYON Photo

He elaborated on this process for me. “Our first plan of action was picking the correct equipment, and by doing so making sure that was a proper usage for what our application was,” he said. From there, the company went through two weeks of “pretty rigorous testing with all of the equipment,” conducting numerous test flights with FlyNYON personnel. This informed the development of new standard operating procedures for the harnesses, and FlyNYON also established a schedule for inspecting and maintaining the harnesses and related equipment.

According to Rosenberg, all of this activity was analyzed through the SMS to determine whether the company’s safety controls adequately mitigated the risks associated with the operation. From FlyNYON’s perspective, they did. “Finally we ended up all coming to the same conclusion as the SMS system, that we had eliminated the high risk of the safety aspect,” he said.

Really?

This is where my own conclusions differ from FlyNYON’s. My recent background discussions with some former FlyNYON employees had led me to believe that the company’s safety controls are not as robust as advertised; as I explained in our meeting, this impression had been reinforced by statements from passengers, and photos shared by passengers to social media.

In the wake of the March 11 accident, FlyNYON’s harness systems were the primary focus of scrutiny from the FAA and the public — as well they should have been. The company’s new harnesses and quick release systems are surely an improvement, although Day acknowledged that the company has not tested them in an underwater egress simulator (and having recently been through underwater egress training myself, I can easily imagine passengers getting tangled up in their seatbelts and harnesses under duress).

However, there are other risks to doors-off flights, beyond those associated with people falling out of the aircraft and the restraints meant to prevent them from doing so. The risk of loose objects flying out of the helicopter is one of the most obvious ones, and it’s exacerbated when passengers are encouraged to extend their arms and legs outside the aircraft in flight.

“Things falling out of the aircraft is my big concern,” said Dan Deutermann, a former U.S. Navy and Coast Guard pilot who is the managing director of the aviation risk management consulting company The Squadron. “Imagine an iPhone coming down from 2,000 feet and hitting a car on the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Loose objects could also fly into the tail rotor, as was tragically illustrated by the crash of a Hydro One AS350 B2 on Dec. 14, 2017. In that accident, all four people on board were killed after an externally carried tool bag and carabiner flew into the tail rotor while the aircraft was on approach to land.

In the carefully rehearsed tour FlyNYON had given me, I had seen the extensive measures the company has in place to prevent such an occurrence — starting with the initial briefing and passenger preparation by the CXs, up to the final safety checks by the pilot. But as I told Day, I had seen numerous photos posted to social media since the accident showing passengers wearing loose-fitting slip-on shoes and heels. When I followed up with some of these passengers, they confirmed that their shoes had not been zip-tied or otherwise secured.

FlyNYON did not take any additional measures to secure the shoes in this photo.
FlyNYON passenger Damian Camacho confirmed that the company did not take any additional measures to secure the shoes in this photo, taken after FlyNYON resumed harnessed flights. Damian Camacho Photo

“None of the passengers were require [sic] to wear zip ties around their shoes. I was a bit nervous to hang my feet out the aircraft because I didn’t want to lose my shoes,” responded one of these passengers, Damian Camacho, adding that the flight had been a Christmas gift and that FlyNYON declined to provide a refund after the accident. Camacho described a hasty briefing and harness fitting: “They also [rushed] a little since they mentioned they wanted to go up ASAP since a storm was rolling in. I was a nervous wreck.”

When I shared this account with Day, he told me, “With any company, Elan, it’s made up of humans. But we’re always trying to achieve better. We’re not perfect, but I think the company today is better than it was a week ago, a month ago, a year ago. That is a constant.”

However, FlyNYON does not appear to have improved on this front in the past month. When I checked Instagram on Sept. 4, more than a month after my interview with Day, I found a number of recently posted photos of FlyNYON passengers wearing loose-fitting shoes. One of them, Lynda Chalker Doku, confirmed that she had gone for a flight on Sept. 2 in kitten heels and that, as she commented on Instagram, it had been an “extreme sport to keep them on.”

“They could have easily flown off, to be honest,” she told me over the phone. “I don’t think I should have been allowed to go on the flight with those.”

In our interview, Day had pointed out that the pilot slows to below 40 knots before passengers are allowed to take shoe selfies, which he said mitigates the risk that a shoe would fly back into the tail rotor. I asked about an incident that had occurred on a FlyNYON flight in Miami earlier this year, in which a passenger had lost one shoe in flight, then spontaneously removed the other shoe and tossed it out of the aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean.

“That was in Miami and that was a new pilot that should have caught that,” he said of the shoes that were loose enough to fly off in the first place. “In New York it would have been caught.”

Despite Patrick Day's assurances that no FlyNYON pilot in New York would allow passengers to go up with very loose-fitting shoes, someone allowed these heels on a flight on Sept. 2.
Despite Patrick Day’s assurances that no FlyNYON pilot in New York would allow passengers to go up with very loose-fitting shoes, someone allowed these heels on a flight on Sept. 2. Passenger Lynda Chalker Doku said she had to keep pulling her feet inside to tug her shoes back on. Lynda Chalker Doku Photo
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However, there are new pilots in New York, too. In June of this year, a FlyNYON pilot inadvertently activated the emergency floats on one of the company’s LongRangers on the ramp. According to Day, that pilot, who was more familiar with the AS350, had just completed his initial training and was on his first passenger-carrying flight when he accidentally pulled the trigger to activate the floats. The floats were removed and replaced, Day said, and the pilot underwent recurrent training.

To me, the Miami shoe incident suggested the unpredictability of passengers with little or no experience around helicopters and no supervision in the cabin, especially those drawn to FlyNYON by its exuberant, carefree marketing style. As Deutermann commented, “If someone does something stupid in the back there’s no way to manage that — and there are so many stupid things people can do in the back.”

Moreover, passengers don’t always have a say as to who they fly with. When I spoke with Doku, she expressed discomfort with being crammed into the LongRanger with five other passengers, including three strangers. “It was too tight,” she said, adding that she was concerned the entire flight that her seat belt was going to come off.

Yet when I raised concerns about the inability of passengers in the cabin to communicate with the pilot, Day told me, “To date there’s never been an issue with a passenger getting a pilot’s attention if they need anything, or if they want to turn around and go back to base.”

Emphasizing the risk of pilot distraction in New York City’s high-density airspace, he also pointed out, “The tour companies don’t use mics.” (This is true of some but not all tour operators in New York City, and it is far from standard practice in the wider helicopter tour industry.)

On Aug. 31, after I confirmed to FlyNYON that I would be mentioning the mic-less headsets in this article, the company told me that headsets with microphones and push-to-talk systems have been ordered for its entire fleet. FlyNYON said it plans to implement the new headsets and communications systems sometime in September.

Photo flights or sightseeing tours?

Day’s repeated references to tour companies during our interview made me suspect that he and I might be regarding FlyNYON’s operations through very different lenses — and coming to different conclusions as a result.

FlyNYON confirmed that one of its new LongRanger pilots inadvertently activated the emergency floats during a passenger-carrying flight earlier this summer.
FlyNYON confirmed that one of its new LongRanger pilots inadvertently activated the emergency floats on the ramp during a passenger-carrying flight earlier this summer. The Foxtrot logo on the helicopter is for Patrick Day’s new charter brand, which uses some of the same helicopters (with doors on) to ferry passengers to destinations including the Hamptons.

As someone who works regularly with professional air-to-air photographers and is often along for their photo shoots, I hold FlyNYON’s operations to the standards of aerial photography. In the helicopter photo shoots we conduct for Vertical — including the one we did using a FlyNYON camera ship in Las Vegas earlier this year — thorough briefings are essential, as is clear communication between the photographer and the pilot.

We often remove the doors for these flights, but not simply for the thrill of it. The fact that most of us have lost friends and acquaintances to aircraft accidents imparts a fundamental seriousness to our approach; the idea of going up on a joyride for the primary purpose of taking photos of our feet is essentially incomprehensible to us.

As Deutermann summarized it for me, “You as a professional aviation journalist understand the risk that you’re taking due to your experience and more extensive training, not just a briefing.” This, he said, is the basis for the “aerial work” exemption for aerial photography in 14 CFR part 119, which allows aerial photography flights to be conducted under more lenient part 91 flight rules, rather than the stricter passenger-carrying requirements of part 135. The exemption is “for people like you who are in the industry, and people like you who understand the hazards and the inherent risks you are taking, particularly when the doors of the helicopter are off,” he said.

But Day compares FlyNYON’s operations to conventional helicopter sightseeing tours, not professional aerial photography operations. And in that context, he believes that FlyNYON is greatly exceeding industry standards — to the point that he doesn’t need to worry too much about the unskilled, unsupervised passengers in the back of his aircraft.

“I look at it, I slowed everything down,” he explained. “If you go to Wall Street right now, and you go take a tour, you’re going to be in that terminal for 10 to 15 minutes, you may or may not talk to someone, and you’re going to go on that flight 15 minutes later.” By contrast, he said, FlyNYON’s passengers are required to arrive at least an hour and 15 minutes early, giving them plenty of time to get settled in and go through multiple safety briefings.

“Now traditional business is, ‘Well Pat, the helicopter took two hours to do a 15-minute flight.’ All that prep time in front, in my opinion, is a lot of time for a lot of professionals that make decent salaries and are that next-level employee to vet or catch any type of potential risk that might be making their way through the terminal to the ramp,” he said.

FlyNYON tightly packs passengers on its doors-off flights, much like other helicopter tour operators who try to maximize loading and revenue.
FlyNYON ran a metal detector over me in my simulated safety briefing, but apparently identified no issues with the chunky gold watch in this photo posted to its own Instagram account on Aug. 22. This photo also shows how tightly FlyNYON packs passengers on its doors-off flights, much like other helicopter tour operators who try to maximize loading and revenue. FlyNYON Photo

A fundamental question, then, is whether FlyNYON’s operations should be regulated as aerial photo flights or sightseeing tours (or, perhaps, whether all aerial photography operations should be regulated more stringently). This is one of the questions that may be addressed by a new Helicopter Association International (HAI) working group, which was recently created to identify safety, regulatory, and best practice gaps affecting elements of the helicopter industry.

According to HAI vice president of operations Chris Martino, the working group includes representatives from 19 of HAI’s operator members and held its first meeting in late June, when it came up with “around a dozen” potential topics for further discussion. He said the group expects to hold its second meeting within the coming months.

Martino declined to comment on the East River helicopter accident and FlyNYON’s continuing operations, citing respect for the NTSB and FAA’s investigative process. However, he confirmed that HAI remains steadfast in its position to keep “doors on” as a requirement for commercial tour operators seeking accreditation through the HAI Accreditation Program of Safety.

“A wide variety of operations occur every day that require the doors be removed to complete the job — for example, search-and-rescue and many of the utility missions,” he stated. “In those cases, the operators mitigate the risks to the extent possible.

“Successful tour operations, however, do not require door removal. With doors off, those operations actually occur with a higher level of risk. HAI understands why ‘doors-off’ tour flights occur, but we simply cannot accredit those operations as meeting a higher level of safety standard.”

Day, however, is adamant that not only are FlyNYON’s harnessed, doors-off flights appropriate for the general public, they are playing a key role in increasing the visibility and reputation of the industry at large. For the 17- to 37-year old millennials who make up the majority of FlyNYON’s customers, he said, the “exhilarating” experience of a doors-off flight can give them a true passion for vertical flight.

“You read some of the reviews, you see their faces when they come down, and we’ve embraced an entire generation,” he said. “There’s a love and a passion for what we do that in my opinion didn’t exist before with this generation.”

Former employees told me that in the wake of the accident and ensuing negative publicity, FlyNYON has been facing significant financial pressures, including a drop in bookings and much higher insurance rates. The company was also named as a defendant in the first lawsuit filed after the crash, by the family of 26-year-old victim Trevor Cadigan. On Sept. 5, the Cadigans’ attorney, Gary Robb, confirmed to me that the case is proceeding along a “normal and expected path.”

Yet in our interview, Day projected confidence that FlyNYON can not only rebound from these pressures, but also play a leading role in bringing the helicopter industry into the future. He described to me how he had flown 26 of his employees out to Heli-Expo earlier this year and given them a pep talk before they walked the show floor.

“I said eventually I want you guys on committees, I want you involved politically, I want NYON to start to have a voice within this industry,” he said, mentioning the constant assault of noise complaints directed toward helicopter operators in New York. “Our industry has taken such a pummeling that part of what we want to do is educate our young millennials that work for us to get more actively involved in our industry. And that’s a passion of mine, to change the perspective of us, and what we do in this space . . .

“It’s just unfortunate that something happened this year that paused a lot of what we were up to at that time. And it was a lot of good.”

Day may be correct that the helicopter industry could stand to improve its public profile and outreach. But when “something” is a horrific fatal accident in the nation’s most populous city, it’s not just a bump in the road — it’s a tragedy that makes even some of FlyNYON’s own customers terrified to fly in helicopters.

“The whole way there I felt on edge thinking about the fatal crash,” Camacho told me. “I may never go up again.”

2 thoughts on “FlyNYON changes equipment, but not business model, after fatal accident

  1. No way in Hell would I do this, not as a passenger, not as a pilot,…and yes, I am a helicopter pilot! Just seems like too much risk vs. reward for my tastes.

    No mics on the headsets huh,…so, how can you call it a “photo” flight if the “photographer” cannot talk to the pilot in flight? Without communication you’re just along for the ride. Sounds like a tour flight to me.

  2. The youth of today are ripe for the picking for businesses such as this one. They pander to the xtreme sport type mentality. Problem is, much of the customer base has no concept of safety and to what extreme is too much–they just do not know! Hence, they are the modern versions of the suckers PT Barnum referred.

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