5 Killed in East River Crash of Doorless Tour Helicopter

March 13, 2018
Abram I. Bohrer

The aviation accident attorneys at Bohrer & Lukeman are closely monitoring the events surrounding a harrowing helicopter crash in the East River of New York City. On Sunday, March 11th, a red single-engine Eurocopter AS350 B2, tail number N350LH, plummeted into the river at 7:06 p.m., leading to the deaths of 5 passengers onboard. The doorless light utility helicopter had been booked through FlyNYON Air for a tour of NYC. The helicopter crash lawyers at Bohrer & Lukeman are closely examining all available information regarding this tragedy.

“This is one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever witnessed,” recounted Aviation attorney Abe Bohrer. “These folks should have been given the chance to survive what was a clearly survivable accident.”

The pilot apparently considered landing in Central Park, and given his ability to perform an emergency auto rotation as depicted in eyewitness video, could probably have put the chopper down gently enough to avoid and serious injuries, let alone death. As noted, that pilot was able to walk away from the crash virtually unharmed.

Photos circulating show partially inflated emergency pontoons. Reports coming out of the investigation indicate that the pontoons were either improperly activated or failed to fully inflate, thus causing the ill- fated helicopter to almost immediately invert and fill the cabin with 40 degree water.

According to the New York Times, Richard Vance, 33, a pilot for Liberty Helicopters, reported “engine failure” in a mayday call to LaGuardia Airport moments before the accident. The helicopter went down in a stretch of river between East 86th and 96th streets along Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where it soon capsized and sank before hard currents swept the aircraft 50 blocks south. Upside-down in freezing waters, the passengers were unable to escape their harnesses in time, leading to the deadliest helicopter accident in NYC since 2009.

The New York Police Department identified the victims as Brian McDaniel and Trevor Cadigan, both 26, of Dallas, Texas; Tristian Hill, 29, and Daniel Thompson, 34, of New York; and Carla Vallejos-Blanco, 29, of Argentina. Vance, who was able to disengage his harness, was the sole survivor.

This accident calls into question the safety of doorless sightseeing helicopter flights, which have become very popular with tourists in recent years. This industry is notorious for its lack of federal regulations and oversight, resulting in passengers who are often unprepared and oblivious to the dangers these flights pose.“The training that we had before takeoff wasn’t good enough to prepare anybody for what could happen,” said Eric Adams, an aviation journalist who had attended the same pre-flight briefing as the victims before boarding a different helicopter tour booked through FlyNYON. According to Adams, the entirety of their safety training was a 10-minute video that instructed passengers to use a knife attached to their harnesses to cut themselves free in case of emergency. Following the video, Adams was still unable to locate the knife on his harness and the tour operators took no time to instruct the passengers in the use of the knife or how to cut away the harness. Nor is it clear whether the pilot attempted any last minute instruction in cutting away the harness upon realizing the helicopter was going to crash in to the water.

For Liberty Helicopters, the New Jersey-based charter company that owned the Eurocopter AS350, this marks the third helicopter crash since 2007. In 2009, a Eurocopter AS350 carrying Italian tourists over the Hudson River collided with a small Piper airplane that had departed from Teterboro, New Jersey, killing nine. Neither aircraft had filed a flight plan. In 2007, a Eurocopter EC-135 returning from a sightseeing tour of Manhattan crashed into the water. The pilot and passengers wore life jackets and were rescued by a nearby boat, narrowly avoiding injury or worse.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York has called on the Federal Aviation Administration to suspend Liberty Helicopter’s operating license until the company’s safety record is assessed and this crash fully investigated.

“Three [crashes] is too many,” said Schumer. “I don’t think Liberty should be flying until we get to the bottom of this.”

The FAA, as well as the National Transportation Safety Board, are onsite to investigate the crash.

In a preliminary discussion with investigators, Vance stated that the helicopter’s fuel shut-off switch may have been unwittingly triggered by a passenger or caught in a harness mid-flight; however, aviation experts assert that such a situation is unlikely given the placement of the switch on the floor of the front cabin. Moreover, the switch, had it been configured properly in its original condition, would have required a multi-step process to engage it and cut-off the flow of fuel.

NTSB spokesperson Bella Dinh-Zarr stated Monday afternoon that the helicopter has been removed from the East River and is now being examined by experts. It will be examined for mechanical issues, including its flotation devices, which do not appear to have inflated correctly at the time of the crash. Investigators will also examine if weather or other factors contributed to the accident, and will release a preliminary report in the coming weeks.

Dinh-Zarr also made a point to assert that at this time, doorless helicopter flights such as this one are perfectly legal.

The helicopter accident attorneys at Bohrer & Lukeman will continue to follow the events related to the East River Liberty Helicopter crash and will update its website with any new information as it is released. Bohrer & Lukeman is an aviation accident law-firm with over 25 years of experience representing those injured or killed in general and commercial aviation accidents. Abe Bohrer, found of the New York-based firm, has successfully represented the victims of general and commercial aviation accidents, domestically and internationally.