The FAA’s Failing Helicopter Flight Regulations

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Helicopters and the Flight Into Regulatory Neglect

Another helicopter into the drink, killing five within sight of New York City’s East River shoreline. “Another” is used to characterize the tragedy, because helicopters seem to crash with disconcerting frequency in the city — and just about everywhere else (e.g., five killed in a February 2018 Grand Canyon tourist helicopter crash).

Once again, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seems asleep, both before and after this latest disaster. Fully five days from the 11 March crash elapsed before the FAA banned “doors off” helicopter flights and promised a “top to bottom” review of such flights. This is typical; over the years the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has repeatedly criticized the FAA for its lackluster oversight of the aviation industry.

In this case, the Eurocopter AS350 was owned and operated by Liberty Helicopter Tours. The FAA approved the certification of the helicopter design for passenger carrying use; it endorsed the passenger restraint systems (or should have), it concurred with flights without doors, it approved the installation of critical controls mounted on the floor, near passengers’ feet and carry-on baggage.

The NTSB has a lot to deal with, principally the FAA’s terminal case of regulatory neglect and lackluster oversight of operators.

Overview of the NYC Helicopter Crash

Let’s briefly review what has been publicly reported.

The single-engine turbine helicopter was flying five tourists on a picture-taking jaunt along the East River. A photo taken aboard shows the passengers happily yukking it up for the camera. Moments later, pilot Richard Vance radioed “Mayday … East River, engine failure.” The helicopter ploughed into the water, with skid-mounted flotation bags deployed, then promptly turned upside down. Only the pilot, with a five-point restraint system, was able to unbuckle with a quick, simple slap of the buckle, located right in front of him, and escape while his passengers were vainly struggling to unbuckle from harnesses designed to keep them inside the doorless passenger compartment. In the preflight brief, they had been advised of the small knife affixed to one of the straps by which they might cut themselves free. Suddenly upside down in freezing water, the frantic quest for air undoubtedly overrode preflight mention of a knife. If their restraints could not be swiftly unbuckled like the pilot’s, then obviously “one level of safety” for all aboard, an FAA mantra, was not followed.

The doors had been removed to give the passengers a better view, the complex restraint system designed to compensate by keeping viewers within the cabin. Let’s ask, what tests were conducted on real people, suddenly upside down in the water, to make sure the passengers released the restraints with one simple motion, without benefit of a knife or razor? What kind of “safety” system requires the use of a knife? The restraints were not part of original equipment for which the helicopter was FAA certified. Was the FAA involved in supplemental type certification of the passenger restraints? To what level of detail? E.g., on-site supervision of real-life dunking tests using everyday volunteers, not belt manufacturer volunteers?

There is a report that the engine quit due to a bag or its strap inadvertently jamming the floor-mounted fuel shutoff lever, forcing the ditching. If so, here’s a critical control mounted out of the pilot’s immediate line of sight, vulnerable to activation by a misplaced foot or carry-on item. If such was the case, how did the helicopter attain original design certification by the FAA? Did the agency simply endorse a spotty European certification?

The FAA’s Neglect of Helicopter Regulations

With flights in highly congested airspace over New York City, the skies crowded with tall buildings and other aircraft, the FAA nonetheless approved these tourist helicopter flights for single pilot operation. A co-pilot could be gainfully employed keeping a lookout, manning the radios, scanning the instruments, etc., thereby freeing the pilot from these mundane but necessary tasks to concentrate on aviating. In May 2013 the FAA declared that helicopters previously approved for two-pilot operation would be authorized for one pilot flights based on “advanced technologies … that can reduce pilot workload…” Did this helicopter feature these un-named “advanced technologies”?

Finding out what started the accident chain-of-events will be needlessly difficult because, unlike for jetliners, the FAA does not require electronic flight recorders for helicopters. The fact that the chance of being killed is about seven times higher for workers commuting by helicopter to offshore oil rigs than for other workers in the United States, according to a 2013 report by the Centers of Disease Control (
mmwr/pdf/wk/ww6216.pdf) was not enough to stimulate the FAA to, finally, require helicopters to be equipped with electronic flight data recorders, the essential “black boxes” used to unravel the mysteries of airliner crashes.

The inflatable bags mounted in the helicopter’s landing skids clearly did not forestall the entire machine from fatally tipping over. There is an account that one of the bags did not fully inflate. If so, did real-life testing reveal a one-in-six bag (15%) failure and the consequent inversion of the helicopter?

And, surely, the FAA is aware of the European Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA) work on helicopter ditching. A 2016 report (EASA report “Helicopter Ditching Occupant Survivability — NPA [Notice of Proposed Amendment]) reminded the helicopter industry that “an ‘air pocket’ large enough and accessible to all passengers in the cabin, following capsize, must be provided (both with the flotation system intact and with single float puncture)” and that the “helicopter must not sink with one flotation unit lost.”

A 2005 report on helicopter ditching by Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA Paper 2005/06) concluded, “… ditched helicopters are likely to capsize … they invariably turn completely upside down, leading to complete flooding of the cabin … When this happens the occupants must escape very quickly because of their limited breath-holding capability … Occupants who do not escape from the cabin within a matter of seconds are likely to down.”

A detailed report on EASA standards by Eurocopter (report EASA.2007.C16) underscored that “additional flotation devices high on the fuselage in the vicinity of the main rotor gearbox (the ‘side-floating concept’)” would prevent a total inversion of the helicopter in the event of ditching and would ensure “the retention of an airspace inside the cabin.”

The latest helicopter tragedy in New York City underscores deficiencies in regulatory oversight and design that have been documented for years. Likewise, workable solutions have been proposed. They have been dumped in the FAA’s “pending” box, without action. Benign regulatory neglect is too kind a gloss on deadly complacency.

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