The Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) is auditing FAA oversight of the helitour industry at the request of New York’s two U.S. senators. The request was triggered by the fatal "doors off" Liberty Helicopters air tour crash in March 2018. The IG will investigate if tourists are permitted to fly with the helicopter doors off on commercial flights, how the safety restraint system used during the Liberty Helicopters crash received its original approval from FAA, and how the FAA reviewed, tested, and approved the supplemental restraint system. Additionally, the IG will examine the FAA’s role in ensuring that helicopters in use today meet modern safety standards.
Liberty was the operator of a 2013 Airbus Helicopters AS350B2 for a “doors off” FlyNY air tour on March 11, 2018, operating under the Part 91 aerial photography exemption. Five passengers and one pilot were aboard when it crashed into the East River at approximately 7:08 p.m, 11 minutes after takeoff from the Helo Kearny Heliport (65NJ) in New Jersey.
Moments after being cleared into Class B airspace at 2,000 feet, pilot Richard Vance, 33, radioed a mayday call and indicated an engine failure. Vance emerged from the wreckage within 90 seconds and was taken aboard a New York Fire Department (FDNY) tug. However, it took rescuers considerably longer to free the passengers—all in their 20s and 30s—described by the FDNY as “tightly harnessed,” and all were pronounced dead either at the scene or later at area hospitals.
The NTSB subsequently discovered that the FAA had not evaluated the passenger harness system used on the accident helicopter and the FAA subsequently placed new restrictions for the restraint systems on doors-off flights that included requirements that operators obtain an FAA letter of authorization (LOA) for the restraint systems used and that those restraints “can be quickly released by a passenger with minimal difficulty and without impeding egress from the aircraft in an emergency.”