Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday they recovered the flight data recording system of the helicopter that crashed Sunday, a critical step in the attempt to find why it plummeted into the East River, killing five passengers and injuring the pilot.
In a statement released late Tuesday afternoon, the NTSB also said the engine of the American Eurocopter AAS350B2 aircraft had been removed in an effort to determine why it may have failed. Investigators also recovered the helicopter’s GoPro camera, which was being sent to the agency’s headquarters in Washington for analysis along with the data recorder.
The statement also provided more detail about the timeline of the flight, a scheduled 30-minute photo-shoot charter that originated from Kearny, New Jersey.
“The pilot had contacted the LaGuardia Airport air traffic control tower for entry into the Class B airspace while flying at an altitude of 2,000 feet. Approximately five minutes later, the pilot declared ‘Mayday’ and stated that the helicopter’s engine had failed,” the statement read.
Also Tuesday, the city medical examiner said that the five passengers had drowned. The helicopter, operated by Liberty Helicopters of Kearny, was on a sunset photography touralong with pilot Richard Vance who survived when it ditched in the river.
The victims have been identified as Daniel Nathan Thompson, 34; Tristan Alexander Hill, 29, and Trevor Norris Cadigan, 26, both of New York; Brian James McDaniel, 26, a firefighter from Dallas; and Carla Vallejos Blanco, 29, an Argentine tourist.
A law-enforcement official familiar with the investigation said Tuesday that Vance, 33, told police the night of the crash that he had considered an emergency landing in Central Park. Aviation industry sources said that landing a helicopter in an urban park, particularly where there is a loss of power, can be very risky because of surrounding buildings, trees, people and power lines.
As it turned out, when Vance took the aircraft into the East River at around 90th Street, its flotation devices deployed but failed to keep the helicopter upright. It flipped over with the passengers trapped inside. Firefighters had to cut the seat harnesses to remove them. Vance was rescued by a passing tug boat.
The law enforcement official said that Vance also told police that when he went to place his hand on the helicopter’s fuel line control lever he saw that it was entangled with a strap, possibly from a passenger seat harness. It had earlier been reported that Vance thought the emergency fuel lever had been pulled into the active position, severing the flow of fuel to the engine.
The NTSB said Tuesday that special “survival factors investigators” were examining the passenger restraint system, had interviewed Liberty’s chief pilot, NYPD and FDNY personnel; Vance had yet to be interviewed.
Normally, the AS350B2 model helicopter has a seat belt system similar to those found in automobiles. Because the doomed helicopter was flying with doors open to facilitate photography by the passengers, they wore special harness vests which could be attached to a strap or cable secured to the helicopter floor, said an FDNY official.
Liberty Helicopter didn’t return requests for comment Tuesday. But Mike Isler, an aerial film technician who has worked with the company over 10 years, said Liberty helicopter harnesses had “cutters” in case of the need to break free.
Isler said the company had “very thorough” safety briefings with passengers before flights and had been viewed as a safe company.
Photographer Eric Adams of Allentown, Pennsylvania, said he flew Sunday on another Liberty aircraft being used for tourist photography. He said that the pre-flight safety instruction for passengers didn’t prepare them for how to quickly release from the harness.
The New York City’s Economic Development Corp., which oversees sightseeing companies operating out of the city, said there are five copter companies currently under contract with the city’s concessionaire, Saker Aviation Services. The city imposes a cap of 30,000 flights per year from those companies, which operate out of the Downtown Manhattan Heliport at Pier 6, near the Battery, according to the EDC.
But those flights represent only a fraction of what takes place in the metropolitan region. The city has no oversight over non-commercial flights or other tourism flights originating outside the five boroughs — even if their flight is within city limits. The city’s EDC couldn’t provide an estimate of the total flights taking place within the city.
With Vincent Barone and Lisa Colangelo