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Pilots warned of safety problems before NYC helicopter crash

By Daniel Uria
Pilots warned of safety problems before NYC helicopter crash
Pilots repeatedly expressed concerns about harnesses used on a New York sightseeing flight that crashed in the East River on March 11, killing all five passengers outfitted with the equipment, according to internal documents reviewed by the New York Times. Photo by Justin Lane/EPA

April 8 (UPI) -- Pilots warned about safety problems to managers of a company offering aerial photo shoots over New York City months before a crash that killed five people, according to internal documents.

The pilots repeatedly requested executives for the sightseeing company FlyNYON provide more suitable safety gear and new tools to allow passengers to free themselves from harnesses in an emergency situation up to days before the deadly crash, according to company emails and other internal documents reviewed by the New York Times.

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"We are setting ourselves up for failure," one pilot told FlyNYON executives about their use of occasionally ill-fitting harnesses in an email.

"Safety has been a concern amongst my clients for a while now," attorney Debra Katz told CNN. "They also have a tremendous concern about retaliation within both companies."

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The internal documents reviewed by The New York Times indicate FlyNYON executives "bristled" at concerns from pilots at Liberty Helicopter, an affiliated company that owned and operated the helicopters used for the tours. FlyNYON's executives maintained the company's practices were safe.

"Let me be clear, this isn't a safety issue with the harnesses," FlyNYON CEO Patrick K. Day, said in a January email to a pilot. Day also disputed the claim "that anyone at FlyNYON did not heed issues raised by pilots at Liberty Helicopter and that we failed to respond to safety concerns."

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On March 11, one of the company's helicopters crashed into Manhattan's East River and all five passengers on board died as they were unable to free themselves once the aircraft was under water.

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The passengers were equipped with yellow harnesses, which pilots had raised concerns about, connected to tethers strapping them into the helicopter and small cutters to sever the tethers in case of an emergency.

The pilot Richard Vance was wearing a standard seatbelt instead of the harness and was the sole survivor of the crash.

Prior to the crash a pilot "observed engine pressure and fuel pressure warning lights and believed he had experienced an engine failure," according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

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Upon making his way to the East River for an emergency landing, the pilot "reached down for the emergency fuel shutoff lever, [and] he realized that it was in the off position. He noted that a portion of the front seat passenger's tether was underneath the lever."

The pilot was unable to restart the helicopter's engine as it fell toward the river, so he was forced to turn off the emergency lever again. Liberty Helicopter personnel including the pilot told the National Transportation Safety Board there were "no sign of abnormalities" in the engine.

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The pilot also told the safety board he provided a safety briefing to passengers before the helicopter took off, including a description of how to use the cutting tool to cut their restraints.

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