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U.S. agency urges closing ‘loophole’ on tourist helicopter flights after fatal crash

WASHINGTON — U.S. safety regulators said the primary cause of a March 2018 helicopter crash that killed five tourists on a photo-shoot trip over New York City was the use of a supplemental harness tether system that triggered an engine failure.

The National Transportation Safety Board said a front passenger’s tether, which connected his supplemental harness to the helicopter, caught on the doors-off Airbus Helicopters AS350 aircraft’s fuel shutoff lever, resulting in a loss of engine power at an altitude of 1,900 feet. The pilot, who survived, successfully ditched the helicopter into the East River.

The NTSB urged the Federal Aviation Administration to close a “loophole” that allows certain doors-off sightseeing flights to operate under an “aerial photography” exception to the more stringent federal regulations for most commercial air tours.

The board also said doors-off helicopter flights that place passengers in supplemental passenger restraints should be halted until federal regulators can better evaluate restraint safety.

The flight was operated by Liberty Helicopters under a contract with NYONair and marketed as FlyNYON. The NTSB criticized Liberty’s and NYONair’s “deficient safety management” and what it termed the Federal Aviation Administration’s “inadequate oversight.” The FAA did not immediately comment.

“These types of doors-off flights with dangerous supplemental restraints that could get tangled or caught on something and hamper escape ought to stop before others get hurt,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.

FlyNYON, a unit of NYONAir, said it has “made changes to its operations to help ensure an accident like this never happens again.” It no longer charters flights with Liberty and operates all doors-off flights using its own helicopters and pilots.

Liberty declined to comment.

The five passengers had been tightly harnessed and were allowed to lean out open doors to take photos. They were unable to detach restraints and became submerged upside down in 40-degree water and drowned.

New York tourist helicopter rides are popular, starting at around $250 and lasting 15 to 25 minutes.

In March 2018, the FAA prohibited doors-off helicopter flights unless passengers had quick-release restraints. The FAA said it was conducting a “top to bottom review” of rules governing such flights, and the Transportation Department’s inspector general is also investigating. (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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