Hoisted into the air by a crane, the mock helicopter cabin swayed above the water in total silence. I sat inside, as tense as the four-point harness holding me in place. Then everything went dark. Wind from giant commercial fans roared toward us to replicate the downwash from a main rotor, water sprayed in from every angle, and we fell into a deep, barely lit indoor pool below, water suddenly pouring in from every opening. The fuselage began rotating upside-down as the operator, standing poolside with a remote control, drove the mechanized rotation ring that sent us spinning. I took a deep breath just before the water reached my neck. As water flooded my nasal cavity for at least the 12th time that day, I fought the urge to unhook my seatbelts and break for the surface. Trying to escape while the aircraft is spinning in the water is a sure way to disorient yourself and minimize your chance of survival.
So I waited an eternal 10 seconds until the movement ceased. Now sitting in an upside-down helicopter in 10 feet of water and in total darkness—you’re trained to close your eyes anyway, to prevent fuel or hydraulic fluid from getting in them and because visuals can be confusing in those conditions—I unhooked my harness, easily twisting the quick-release buckle, and scooted across two rows of seats to the other side of the fuselage. Using my memory and hands as guides, I searched for the lever that would unlock the window, allowing me to push it out and swim to the surface.
By this point in the day, I had suffered through multiple variations of this exercise, first in shallow water cages and then this full simulation in the deep water, each time struggling to keep my cool, move methodically, and punch myself out. Still, panic began to set in as my body begged for oxygen and my hand groped about in vain.
I had come to this simulator, run by Survival Systems USA in Groton, Connecticut, to get a sense of what it might have been like in the water for the five passengers of the FlyNYON helicopter that crashed into New York City’s East River on March 11. I got the confusion, disorientation, and panic, but my experience was nothing like theirs. I had been trained. I had instructors inches away and safety divers floating nearby. I was in a warm pool, rather than frigid river water. And I wore a harness I easily undid when it was time to move.
So my imagination filled the gaps between my simulator experience and their real life crash, a process made all the more chilling because I had been so close to their fate. As it happened, I was also flying with FlyNYON on the night of March 11, in a different helicopter but with the same group and at the same time.
In the hour leading up to our departure, I sat through the same preflight safety briefing as the victims. We exchanged easy, excited banter as we got ready to take our open-door, sunset photo flights. I wore the same harness they did, the kind that locked me to the aircraft via a thick tether but that didn’t have a quick-release buckle that untrained passengers might accidentally activate while leaning out to take photos.
I can now sense something of what the final moments would have been like for the victims aboard N350LH—the helicopter’s tail number—absent, of course, the reality. That is, the crushing realization that they weren’t going to make it out alive. Nothing can simulate that.
The flight was supposed to be all fun and games—an exciting, doors-off, wind-in-your-hair helicopter ride above Manhattan that would yield gorgeous sunset images of the city. It’s a service that FlyNYON has offered for a few years now, and the dramatic aerial shots have become a staple for Instagrammers, many of whom function as unofficial ambassadors for the company.
Twice, the controllers asked him to repeat his transmission, to the point that a nearby pilot—mine, in fact—interjected: “He had an engine failure over the East River. That was a mayday, LaGuardia.”
FlyNYON had already provided closed-door aerial flights for tourists and charter flights for individual, professional photographers and video productions. It now adopted the hashtag #shoeselfie—used for fun shots of feet hanging out of the helicopter with the city below—as its signature take-home for the new swarms of amateur photographers going for the open-door upgrade. The new business model worked, and FlyNYON expanded operations to Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. It recently opened a sleek new terminal for its New York location.
But in the wake of the accident, it now appears, based on the startlingly quick regulatory reaction from the FAA, feedback from industry experts, a lawsuit from the family of one of the victims, internal company emails obtained and reviewed by WIRED in conjunction with industry publication Vertical, and my own observations of the preflight safety briefing and the flight itself that when that helicopter hit the water in what should have been a wet but entirely survivable landing, its five passengers nevertheless had little chance of making it out alive.
According to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board, the helicopter initially encountered trouble above Central Park, when the engine suddenly lost power. (At this point, though our two helicopters had flown together to the Statue of Liberty, where I took photos of the accident aircraft, we had separated. I didn’t witness the accident, but appear to have captured its entry into the water inadvertently while photographing above the East River.)
The pilot soon realized that fuel to the engine had been cut off: According to the NTSB’s preliminary report, a passenger had apparently leaned back to take a shoe selfie and his tether got caught underneath the emergency fuel cutoff lever, activating it. Pilot Richard Vance tried to restart the engine, but had to quickly resign himself to the fact that his aircraft was going down. Though close to Central Park, he decided there were too many people there, so he opted instead for ditching in the East River. With its rotors freewheeling in the airstream, Vance aimed the chopper in that direction. He adjusted the rotor’s speed and angle to bring it down as slowly and as upright as possible, a maneuver called an autorotation that takes advantage of the fact the spinning rotors still generate enough lift for a controlled descent. He radioed in to the air traffic controllers at the nearest airport. Twice, the controllers asked him to repeat his transmission, to the point that a nearby pilot—mine, in fact—interjected: “He had an engine failure over the East River. That was a mayday, LaGuardia.”
With the East River coming up fast, Vance deployed the inflatable pontoons on the skids, designed to help keep the Liberty Helicopters-owned Airbus AS350-B2, chartered by FlyNYON, afloat long enough for the occupants to evacuate. The front right pontoon, however, failed to fully inflate, though it’s still unclear whether that was due to a defect, maintenance issue, or simply being deployed too late.
The helicopter hit the water hard, but not fatally so, and immediately rolled in the direction of the underinflated pontoon. Frigid water flowed in from the right side of the aircraft, filling the fuselage in seconds. Vance hit the center buckle on his restraints, freeing himself. His five passengers, however, each wore harnesses that were attached to the helicopter by tethers, secured via locking carabiners to metal rings between their shoulder blades. To unlock the carabiners, passengers would have had to locate the metal sleeve-like screw-lock behind their back and twist it until it was unlocked—though passengers would not have known how many twists that would have taken or even at what point the carabiner would have been unlocked. Vance tried desperately to free Trevor Cadigan, the passenger next to him, but he later told investigators that he had to give up as water flooded the cabin and the helicopter continued to pitch over. (Through an intermediary, he indicated he did not want to talk to the press.) He made it to the surface, climbed onto the inverted chopper, and began trying to signal for help.
His passengers were not so fortunate. Pinned by their restraints, Trevor Cadigan, Brian McDaniel, Carla Blanco, Tristan Hill, and Daniel Thompson, all in their 20s and 30s, drowned.
When individuals without training find themselves in a situation like a cold-water landing, the challenges stack up fast, says Jon Ehm, the training coordinator at Survival Systems USA. “The first thing an untrained person might have trouble with is avoiding injury—so keeping their head, legs, and arms in the brace position,” Ehm says. “Then disorientation is a huge factor. You experience an abrupt stop, a violent rolling over of the helicopter, and then the water ingress and the loss of visual references. Then you have to deal with your harness. Some people might be able to retain enough information from their briefing to get out, others might not retain anything.”
The crash and their deaths raise many questions: If the passenger’s tether did trigger the fuel cutoff switch, how did that happen so easily? Why were there so many fatalities in a seemingly survivable accident? And, are these newly popular open-door helicopter flights, and tourist flights in general, as safe as they could be?
The Safety Briefing
Though the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the crash—as a witness, I provided a statement to the NTSB—their immediate actions have centered on the survivability question. Within a week, the FAA announced it would halt all open-door flights that use harnesses without quick-release mechanisms, citing the challenges of escape even in incidents on land, particularly if there’s a fire. Now, investigators will examine, among other things, the way FlyNYON briefs passengers for its flights, and what equipment it uses to secure them.
FlyNYON was operating three simultaneous flights that night: the one that would crash, the one I was in—both 30-minute sunset flights—and a third shorter flight, at just 15 minutes. We passengers sat through the same safety briefing, which consisted mostly of a chirpy and enthusiastic video that lasted less than 5 minutes. It showed the harness setup and the fact that there was a knife attached that we could use to cut the tether in an emergency. As I have since confirmed with a fellow passenger, FlyNYON personnel didn’t reinforce any of the information as we geared up and boarded, nor did they ask me or others in my helicopter to practice releasing ourselves from our restraints in case of an emergency.
Vance, the pilot, told investigators he gave his passengers specific instructions for using the knife to cut themselves free from their harnesses if necessary. But on my helicopter, nobody showed me where my knife was, explained how my tether was connected to the aircraft, or told me how to cut myself free if I needed to.
The ground crews attached personal flotation devices to us just a minute or two before we boarded. They didn’t explain how they functioned or how to use them, and we didn’t receive even the most basic helicopter safety instructions, such as to stay away from the tail rotor and to watch out for the main rotor if you have to evacuate in an emergency and find yourself on uneven terrain that might bring you dangerously close to it—all instructions I’ve received on every previous helicopter flight I’ve taken. We received no instructions for what to do in the event of an emergency landing on land or water. We had no microphones to communicate with the pilot, so we could only hear him talking to us. (A fellow passenger confirms my memory of this.)
Professional photographers and others who use harnesses in helicopters usually go through thorough training for how to use them and how to evacuate in an emergency. “When I go in the air I typically have between $6,000 and $7,000 worth of safety equipment attached to me. There’s a flight helmet, a life jacket woven into my $2,500 harness, a temporary air supply, and a seat belt cutter,” says Ryan Mason, an aviation photographer and publisher of industry magazine Collective. “I’ve had egress training in an emergency. When you land in water like they had in New York, it may be nice and blue on the surface, but underneath it’s nothing but black. I’ve done it before, but the first time, people completely freak out. That’s why you practice—you want to give people more than a fighting chance.”
Neither FlyNYON, which markets and sells the tours, nor Liberty Helicopters, the charter service FlyNYON uses for its New York flights, has responded to requests for comment, referring all media queries to the FAA or the NTSB. (That’s fairly standard procedure following aviation accidents.)
The Harness & the Knife
The parents of one of the victims, Trevor Cadigan, brought what is likely to be just the first lawsuit in the case just days after the crash. The suit, filed in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, names FlyNYON, Liberty Helicopters, Vance, Airbus, and others associated with the flight, as defendants. It alleges that FlyNYON used harnesses that could not be easily removed, that it failed to provide an adequate pre-flight safety briefing, and that the “policy of providing a knife to each passenger to cut through their harness to extricate themselves is grossly negligent and reckless.”
There’s evidence that FlyNYON was already on notice that their safety systems had problems. According to internal emails reviewed by WIRED, the company’s own pilots had recently raised concerns about the safety of the harness and tether system. These emails suggest a contentious relationship between FlyNYON CEO Patrick Day, Jr. and the pilots on both his staff and Liberty’s, and appear to show that Day suppressed their concerns. In a report published April 7 by helicopter industry magazine Vertical, special projects editor Elan Head disclosed internal emails she has received from an anonymous source close to the company—later provided to The New York Times, which also published a piece. (WIRED reached out to FlyNYON after news of the emails broke, and has not heard back, though the company did release this statement.) I also met with the source in order to verify the person’s identity and the emails’ authenticity, and to provide background and insight into the companies’ operations.
According to those emails, some FlyNYON and Liberty pilots cited shortcomings with the yellow harnesses used on passengers—inexpensive models manufactured primarily for construction use, according to Vertical’s source, others in the industry, and my own observations—and expressed a preference for more expensive “blue” harnesses, manufactured by Air Rescue Systems. These were more adjustable, allowing for better fits, particularly on smaller passengers. They also had more accessible anchor points for the tether attachment, including spots on the front and at the waist, making it much easier for passengers to release themselves in an emergency. In an email from January 17 of this year, Day wrote: “Pilots … Let me be clear, this isn’t a safety issue with the harnesses, the pilot may not query about the harness.” Later, he wrote, “The yellow harnesses are just as legal/safe as the blue.”
Technically, Day is correct: The harnesses are not illegal, as at that point the FAA hadn’t actually addressed them, or, specifically, their relatively new and as-yet uncommon use among untrained consumers in open-door flights. Indeed the aviation administration raised no comment about the harnesses during an inspection visit last year. Still, concerns weighed heavily on the pilots’ minds, the emails show. In February, after one again spoke up about the harnesses and the personnel who conduct the safety briefings, fit the harnesses on passengers, and transported them to the helicopters, Day reacted harshly. “I’m insulted by the manner at which you address my team,” he wrote in an email obtained by Head and reviewed by WIRED. “My team worked and works their *** off today and every day. It’s the month of February when all other operators in NY had most of their fleet parked today with zero flights. Instead of saying thank you you point out the bad and act as if we didn’t think of these solutions. NYON is Liberty’s biggest customer (and growing) and you talk to us as if we are a bunch of dumbasses.”
The Cadigan family attorney expressed grave concern in reaction to the emails. “I showed these emails to my clients. They are astounded and frightened,” said attorney Gary Robb. “Based on this reporting, it has become abundantly clear that this company was well aware of the true nature of these risks and proceeded with knowledge of those risks.”
A number of pilots and aviation experts we spoke to say it’s not the doors that are the problem with this sort of flight, but the harnesses and the tethers used. Other internal FlyNYON emails also noted basic incompatibilities with the tethers and the knives—that the provided hook-style belt cutters couldn’t actually slice the thick tethers without significant effort and practice on the part of the user. (I verified this by duplicating the setup—and couldn’t slice the tether with the knife that would have been included on my vest.)
In general, open-door flights are common in helicopter aviation, and could still be staged with passengers properly belted into quick-release, four-point harnesses in their seats. They would just have to give up the ability to lean out of the aircraft as they would when wearing a tethered harness to allow them to snap that #shoeselfie and watch the likes roll in. But even that solution is problematic, the experts argue. After all, it’s one thing for trained professionals to know how to avoid accidentally releasing themselves from their quick-release seat restraints and falling out; it’s quite another to assume a helicopter full of giddy tourists could do the same.
The FAA’s emergency order now prohibits the use of open-door flights without quick-release harnesses, a rule that specifically targets the inexpensive construction-grade harnesses used by FlyNYON. The blue ARS harnesses referred to earlier have more accessible anchor points but aren’t technically “quick release” models. That said, other options do exist—assuming they could be validated for use with the average civilian passenger: “There are models out there for open-door flight that prevent people from falling out, and might have two-stage quick-release function that they can release with one hand, but it still has a redundant mechanism to make sure you’re not freed too easily. We have 50 years of evolution behind these systems,” says Survival Systems’ Ehm.
Indeed, the idea of offering such flights to the average consumer looking for a novel experience they can share on social media has many in the helicopter industry questioning the even more fundamental idea of whether such customers can be expected to save themselves in even the best conditions, particularly given the inherent risks present in low-altitude aviation in busy areas. Though overall, fatal helicopter accident rates have fallen in recent years—the FAA reports that between 2013 and 2016, the number of fatal accidents per year dropped from 30 to 17—a 2014 study published by the Aerospace Medical Association found that helicopter air tours, which typically are in popular and congested areas, crash more often than similar commercial passenger operations. Their accident rates are comparable, in fact, to those among flights conducted by medevac services and offshore oil rig transportation, both of which often fly in more treacherous conditions than air tours.
Beyond whatever the investigations learn about these two companies, the helicopter industry itself has begun examining tourist flight activities with greater scrutiny, regardless of whether the doors are on or off. In early February, a sightseeing helicopter crashed in the Grand Canyon, killing five and severely burning two. Though the FAA requires crash-resistant fuel tanks on registered helicopters made after 1994—they separate passengers from possible fuel tank rupture during a crash—the NTSB estimates that only 15 percent of American helicopters in this range are fully compliant. Retrofit kits for helicopter models like the ones that crashed in the Grand Canyon and the East River only became available last year, and can cost over $100,000, so a much smaller percentage of these helicopters, which are popular with tour operators, likely have protection against post-crash fires. It’s not clear yet whether the aircraft in either of these recent accidents were compliant. In the Grand Canyon alone, hundreds of flights come and go each day, and 50 people have died in crashes there in the last 15 years.
Of course, the average consumer wouldn’t know of such risks—or the assorted nuances of regulatory compliance—when walking into FlyNYON’s gleaming new terminal in New Jersey, with its bar for parties and corporate events, a room with virtual reality gear for flight demonstrations, and a “command center” with monitors on the wall showing maps of the city and lots of workstations lined up in rows beneath them. Though hokey, such glossy presentations do indeed inspire confidence. Had everyone there fully grasped the risks we were about to undertake, however, it seems unlikely that confidence would have persisted.
In the Tank
Back in the pool, a week after the crash and with the emotions of the experience still fresh in my mind, I learned how critical every second can be in an escape—and thus how vital it is to maintain your composure. As I searched for the lever to unlock the faux helicopter’s window, quickly reaching the limit of my breath-holding capability, fear and panic proved difficult to suppress. But I remembered to keep calm and work methodically. I finally found the lever. I pushed out the window and swam to the surface, my own modestly harrowing ordeal over. In near-freezing water, with no instruction, and, most importantly, in a harness so difficult to undo that a knife is your best option, a real crash would be far more terrifying.
During our class, which consisted of myself and about a dozen National Guard personnel who fly in Blackhawk helicopters, I asked instructor Dan McInnis how long someone could last in water conditions such as one would find in the East River in March. “You have a good chance of surviving, especially in a metro area with emergency services right there,” he said. “The gasp reflex hits people fast in cold water, but if you can get out you’ll have 10 to 20 minutes of useful functionality in your body before you go into true physical distress.”
The five passengers aboard N350LH never made it that far. Instead, they were tied inescapably to their overturned helicopter. Anchored to an anchor, they never had a chance.