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FAA: Pilot in Manhattan helicopter crash not certified to fly in poor weather

Doug Brazy, an investigator with the National Transportation

Doug Brazy, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, leaves a news conference in Manhattan on Tuesday in which he offered updates on Monday's fatal helicopter crash. Credit: AP/Mark Lennihan

The pilot who died after the helicopter he flew in dense fog and rain crash-landed on a Manhattan skyscraper rooftop was not certified to fly in poor weather conditions, federal aviation officials said Tuesday.

Pilot Timothy McCormack, of upstate Clinton Corners, was killed on impact after the Agusta A-109E twin-engine helicopter went down at about 1:45 p.m. Monday on the roof of the 54-story AXA Equitable building on Seventh Avenue between 51st and 52nd streets, officials said. The fiery wreck forced the evacuation of the high rise and for a brief time stoked fears of another terrorist attack.

McCormack, alone in the helicopter when it crashed, had taken off about 11 minutes before from the 34th Street Heliport with an intended destination of Linden Airport in Linden, New Jersey, officials said Monday.

Investigators with the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday they were considering several possibilities to explain why McCormack deviated from his original flight plan and instead, flew nearly 20 blocks north before going down.

Whether the clouds and rain played a role in the crash is part of the investigation, officials said.

“Should the helicopter have been flying?” asked Doug Brazy, an air safety investigator with the NTSB at a news conference in midtown Manhattan near the AXA Equitable building. “I don’t know yet.”

McCormack had flown from Westchester County at about 11:45 a.m. with one passenger and landed at the 34th Street Heliport, officials said. He reviewed weather conditions before lifting off at 1:32 p.m., officials said.

At about the same time McCormack was in flight, Central Park was reporting fog and moderate rain, with ground visibility of a mile and a quarter and a cloud ceiling of 500 feet, the National Weather Service said.

Pilots are required to have an instrument flight rating certification to fly in conditions where the cloud ceilings is below 1,000 feet and visibility is less than 3 miles, said Gregory Martin, a spokesman for the FAA, in an email Tuesday. McCormack, 58, was only certified to fly under regulations known as visual flight rules, which require generally good weather and clear conditions, according to the FAA.

An autopsy on the pilot was pending late Tuesday, said a spokeswoman for the Office of The City Medical Examiner.

Investigators were also looking at McCormack’s last-minute decisions, as well as any radio contact he may have had before the crash. The helicopter’s maintenance records are being reviewed.

The chopper crashed just blocks from the Trump Tower and was flying in airspace that has been restricted since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.

“We think his route of flight did not go as planned and he may have ventured into airspace requiring that he contact air traffic control,” Brazy said, “but at the moment we don’t have any records of him doing so.”

The helicopter didn’t have — nor was it required to have — a cockpit voice recorder or flight recorder but investigators are trying to salvage any electronic devices from the wreckage containing memory capabilities to help piece together McCormack’s final moments, Brazy said. Much of the helicopter was demolished after it burst into flames, making the recovery of anything useful difficult, he said.

“We have some information that the pilot may have tried to make radio calls near the end of the flight. We are trying to confirm that now,” Brazy said. “We are trying to find out if it is recorded … if it is not recorded, trying to find out what witnesses recall from that radio transmission if it exists.”

Also under review is an amateur video posted Monday on social media that investigators believe shows the doomed chopper pausing and hovering a short distance south of the heliport before turning and making an erratic flight back north through rain and clouds.

McCormack was a certified commercial pilot and flight instructor with a rating for flying helicopters and single engine airplanes, according to FAA records. The records also showed that he “must have available glasses for near vision.”

Agency records show McCormack had one safety incident. In March 2014, according to records, while McCormack flew a helicopter on a sightseeing trip, the aircraft struck one or more birds over the west bank of the Hudson River. McCormack landed the aircraft without incident. One passenger suffered minor scratches after a bird breached the windshield, the FAA records show.

Officials with the FAA didn’t respond to questions about the helicopter’s maintenance records. Brazy said that Leonardo Helicopters, whose parent company is in Italy and manufacturers the helicopter and other aircraft, was involved in the investigation, as was Pratt & Whitney, the manufacturer of the engines. Based on earlier accidents, manufacturer representatives are often brought into NTSB investigations to provide technical support.

As of late Tuesday, what remained of the helicopter was still on the building’s rooftop, Brazy said. A salvage crew will move the wreckage to another location for more scrutiny, he said, but getting it down won’t be easy.

“The location within the city and on top of a roof in the city is probably the biggest challenge,” he said.

With AP

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