Regulatory, Safety

FAA Issues New Order on ‘Doors-Off’ Helicopter Flights

By Amy Kluber | March 23, 2018
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Emily Gibson, a survival factors investigator with the NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety, documents the restraint systems within the cabin of the Liberty Helicopters’ helicopter that crashed in New York City's East River March 11. Photo courtesy of NTSB

The FAA issued a new order banning certain passenger restraint systems on commercially operated helicopter flights with their doors open or removed.

In the emergency restriction/prohibition order issued Thursday, two days after the agency had expressed its position regarding doors-off flights, the FAA has mandated effective immediately that all such "doors-off flights" are prohibited from using "supplemental passenger restrain systems that cannot be released quickly in an emergency." The order also prohibits "passenger-carrying doors-off flight operations unless the passengers are at all times properly secured using FAA-approved restraints."


The FAA defines supplemental passenger restraint systems as those that are "not installed on the aircraft pursuant to an FAA approval, including (but not limited to) restraints approved through a type certificate, supplemental type certificate or as an approved major alteration using FAA Form 337."

The agency directly cites the March 11 New York City tourist helicopter crash in saying that such restraint systems "can significantly delay or prevent passengers from exiting the aircraft in an emergency."

According to the order, "any supplemental passenger restraint system being used for a  doors-off flight must not require the use of a knife to cut the restraint, the use of any other additional tool or the assistance of any other person. A supplemental passenger restraint also must not require passenger training beyond what would be provided in a pre-flight briefing."

There is one exception made to the use of supplemental passenger restraint systems included in the emergency order. The exception states that doors of flights for compensation can be operated using supplemental passenger restraint systems if the “Acting Administrator has determined that the restraints to be used can be quickly released by a passenger with minimal difficulty and without impeding egress from the aircraft in an emergency.”

Operators seeking to determine whether their supplemental passenger restraint system can be quickly released during an emergency are required by the agency to submit applications to its Texas-based rotorcraft standards branch.

The family of one of the victims who died in the fatal flight that crashed in New York's East River is now suing the operator, Liberty Helicopters; the charter company, FlyNYON; and the pilot, according to a lawsuit filed in the New York State Supreme Court. The pilot survived the incident.

Among its claims, the lawsuit says that the operator "failed to properly provide safe helicopter services in that it utilized harnesses for its passengers which could not be easily removed in the event of a crash." Further, it says, the operator was "negligent and reckless in that they implemented a policy to cinch passengers into heavy duty harnesses which are tied to the helicopter floor with only a knife for passengers to free themselves from rigid waters."

The FAA said while this order is in effect, further rulemaking that addresses these type of operations and the use of supplemental restrain systems are forthcoming.

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