Company pilot e-mails recently published in the New York Times have raised questions about the safety culture at FlyNYON and Liberty Helicopters and the circumstances leading to the fatal doors-off photo flight that killed all five passengers on a March 11 Liberty Helicopters-operated flight that crashed into New York City's East River. The e-mails suggest that both pilots and company officials knew months before the accident that there were problems with the function and repair of the supplemental passenger harnesses and the sharpness and utility of the emergency cutting tools provided to passengers that would have impeded the passengers' ability to safely extricate themselves in the event of an emergency. Executives at FlyNYON and Liberty have repeatedly said that they met all safety standards and addressed all employee safety concerns.
An unspecified number of New York-based FlyNYON pilots have retained the Washington, D.C. law firm of Katz, Marshall, and Banks to represent them and provide whistle-blower protection, according to firm attorney Joseph Abboud. “Our clients have strong concerns about anonymity and are cooperating with ongoing law enforcement investigations, so I can't reveal too much about what they know and what we are doing,” Abboud told AIN. “We are representing a group of pilots who have strong concerns about a lax safety culture at FlyNYON and who have provided information to the FAA and the New York State Attorney General's Office relating to their concerns.”
Abboud said this did not necessarily mean there is an ongoing criminal investigation and he declined to name his clients or detail how many pilots have legal representation. He characterized it as a “group” and said they had “all worked on FlyNYON flights,” but declined to specify if they are employed by FlyNYON or Liberty Helicopters or if they are current or former employees. “We're assisting them in making sure they get all their pertinent information to the regulatory entities so that the regulatory entities can conduct their investigations into this important public safety issue and to ensure, to the best of our abilities, that the pilots remain anonymous and can benefit from any whistle-blower protections that the laws can provide.”
He also declined to say if his firm is working with other government entities besides the FAA and the New York attorney general's office. “We feel it is important that employees or anyone with information about public safety issues can come forward without fearing retaliation, and we see it as our responsibility to help publicly minded citizens to do so without any harm coming to themselves,” Abboud said.
At this time, the New York Attorney General's office will confirm only that it is conducting a consumer protection-related investigation into the accident. The Manhattan district attorney's office told AIN it is not investigating the accident at this time.
The most high-profile suit to date has been filed by St. Louis attorney Gary Robb on behalf of the family of front-seat passenger Trevor Cardigan. It charges FlyNYON, Liberty, and pilot Richard Vance, the sole accident survivor, with “conscious disregard of known safety procedures and regulations.”
While the FAA has temporarily banned doors-off flights that do not employ quick-release harnesses, the agency said it had yet to determine what to do about the Part 91 photo flight exemption that enabled the FlyNYON business model in the first place. “This is a continuing accident investigation, and we want to know all the information developed during the investigation before we determine if additional safety actions are needed,” an FAA spokesman told AIN.