Safety

FAA Takes New Position on ‘Doors-Off’ Helicopter Flights

By Woodrow Bellamy III | March 20, 2018

NTSB investigators issued a new recommendation to the FAA to assure that if a harness system is used for an open-door passenger flight, it should allow for rapid egress from the aircraft in the event of an emergency. Photo courtesy of NTSB

The FAA is raising awareness about the hazards presented by certain types of seat restraints used for “doors-off” flights. However, the agency has not issued any official new regulation grounding "doors-off flights." Those that are operated must feature specific seat restraint configurations that comply with the Federal Aviation Regulations.

The FAA told R&WI: “Operators, pilots, and consumers should be aware of the hazard presented by supplemental restraint devices in the event of an emergency evacuation during 'doors-off' flights. The FAA will order operators and pilots to take immediate actions to control or mitigate this risk. Until then, the FAA will order no more 'doors-off' operations that involve restraints that cannot be released quickly in an emergency. Additionally, the FAA will conduct a top to bottom review of its rules governing these flights to examine any potential misapplication that could create safety gaps for passengers."

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In a similar public statement on the FAA's Twitter account, the agency specifically targeted helicopter operators.

The NTSB published an “urgent” recommendation to the FAA Monday amid the safety board's investigation into what caused an Airbus Helicopters AS350 B2 to crash into New York City's East River, killing five passengers and injuring the pilot. The NTSB’s latest update includes an urgent recommendation to the FAA, requesting the agency to prohibit open-door aircraft flights that feature passenger safety harness systems that it considers to be unsafe.

Background and analysis of the accident provided by the NTSB notes that the passengers were wearing a harness system that was not installed by the original equipment manufacturer of the helicopter. Instead, the helicopter included off-the-shelf components provided by FlyNYON, the company that arranged for and sold the experience to the passengers.

The NTSB specifically mentions that the passengers were wearing a “nylon fall-protection harness tethered via lanyard to the helicopter,” versus the manufacturer-provided lap belt/upper-body restraint. Additionally, the safety investigators say that their focus is on commercial flights with passenger harness systems that do not allow for easy release during emergencies.

“Despite being given a briefing on how to self-egress from the restraint and harness systems, none of the passengers were able to escape after the helicopter rolled over into the water,” the NTSB said.

Investigators also referenced the NTSB’s longstanding concern with “safe egress” for passengers in helicopter cabins because of its 2008 investigation into a helicopter crash in which three of the surviving passengers said their unfamiliarity with the type of buckles on the restraints contributed to their inability to release their restraints.

FAA representatives that were involved in the crash investigation said that it had not been assessed for compliance with 14 CFR 27.785(c). This section of the federal code of regulations states that seats, safety belts, harnesses and adjacent parts of a rotorcraft must be designed so that a person “making proper use of these facilities will not suffer serious injury in an emergency landing.”

New York City’s chief medical examiner said that the causes of death for all five passengers were drowning.

NTSB’s description of the crash is that the single-engine helicopter “impacted the East River during an autorotation maneuver after the pilot reported a loss of engine power.”

As of Tuesday, FlyNYON’s website is still advertising open-door helicopter flights in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco.

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