East River Helicopter Crash Raises Safety Questions; 5 Dead, Pilot Survives 1

The Eurocopter AS350, like the one pictured here, crashed in the East River Mar. 11, killing five people . (Photo: Tracer Aviation)

A sight-seeing helicopter that plunged into the frigid East River in New York City, Sunday, was loaded to capacity with passengers, pushing the craft to its limits, which may have contributed to the crash. All five passengers were killed, but the pilot escaped unharmed, according to the latest reports.

The crash was caught in a dramatic video filmed by a passerby, raising safety questions about the aircraft.

Eurocopter AS350: Notable Crashes
  • On 15 September 2007, former World Rally Championship driver Colin McRae and three passengers were killed when his AS350 B2 Squirrel, which he was piloting, crashed near Lanark, Scotland.
  • On 8 August 2009, a Piper PA-32R collided with an AS350 over the Hudson River in New York City, with both aircraft crashing into the Hudson River. There were no survivors from the crash.
  • On 10 June 2012, an AS350 B3e belonging to the Kenya Police Air Wing crashed in Kibiku area in Ngong Forest, west of Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least six people, including Kenya’s Interior Security Minister George Saitoti and his deputy Orwa Ojode.
  • On 7 June 2014, a Helibrás HB-350BA crashed after takeoff, in Aruanã, Goiás state, Brazil. All on board died, including retired soccer player Fernandão.
  • On 9 March 2015, two AS350 B3 collided mid air in La Rioja Province, Argentina, killing all 10 people on board both aircraft. The passengers, including a number of French athletes, were participants in the filming of French reality television program Dropped.
  • On 16 December 2017 an AS350 B3 crashed in Yerba Buena Biological Reserve approximately 100 miles west of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Among the six dead in the crash was Hilda Hernández the sister of Juan Orlando Hernández the president of Honduras.
  • On 11 March 2018 an AS350 crashed, carrying six passengers including the pilot, in the east river of New York City. Five passengers where confirmed dead. the pilot was rescued by a nearby tug boat.

The manufacturer of the Eurocopter AS350 helicopter touts if for its low cost and reliability. It’s widely used around the world for medical transport, firefighting, police work, sight seeing and general aviation.

The helicopter comes in three basic versions. The standard helicopter is rated for one pilot and five passengers. A “comfort” version recommends four or five passengers, while a heavy duty version can carry up to six passengers and pilot, according to company literature.

But the craft has not been without problems.

In 2010, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a Safety Recommendation regarding a design defect on the Eurocopter AS350, that could cause an inadvertent loss of engine power or engine overspeed.

A critical control device is located where it can be inadvertently moved by either the pilot or a passenger resulting in a crash, according to a legal newsletter that focuses on air safety of emergency helicopters.

The company has also had problems with its six-seat Eurocopter EC135. It has a history of mid-air malfunctions and a lack of critical safety features.

In 2007, the FAA issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive for all Eurocopter Model EC135 helicopters.

East River Helicopter Crash

A sight-seeing helicopter goes down in the East River. Five passengers were killed. The pilot survived. (Photo: JJMaggers/Twitter)

The European Safety Agency (EASA) notified the FAA that an unsafe condition may exist on Eurocopter EC135 and EC635 helicopters involving the failure of a tail rotor control rod. Failure of the rod would cause subsequent loss of control of the helicopter.

Under FAA regulations the company would have had to address these issues. But it’s unknown at the moment whether the helicopter in question was up to safety standards.

Questions were raised about the AS350 safety in 2012 when a helicopter crashed in Kenya, killing all six Kenyan government officials on board.

“The tender requirement specified a takeoff weight of 5000 lb and above without specifying if this was with internal or external loads or an average of both. The AS350 B3e has a takeoff weight of 4960 lb with internal load and of 6172 lb with external load,” according to the company.

“The AS350 B3 has demonstrated its unmatched performance, setting world records for the highest recorded landing of all aircraft categories when it landed on the top of Mt. Everest; it has also set a record of climb speed to altitude, with a climb of 9,900ft/3,000m in 2min 21seconds and the ability to hover at maximum take-off power for 30 minutes,” the company said at the time in a statement.

A Dec. 2010 report in Aviation Law Monitor on a Sundance tour helicopter crash in Las Vegas noted that the craft is the most popular tour helicopter in the United States.

“But according to some tour operators, the helicopter is dangerous and defective. They use it anyway because it is the most profitable,” the report stated.

The FAA concluded that the Sundance crash was the result of poor maintenance.

The New York City helicopter plunged into the river off East End Ave. and E. 89th Street on the Upper East Side, near Carl Schurz Park and Roosevelt Island.

The helicopter landed in an upright position, and the pilot deployed its emergency flotation device. But instead of steadying the craft the device caused it to flip over, trapping the passengers.

The crash also raises questions about the safety harnesses used to strap in the passengers. While the pilot was able to free himself from the restraints, none of the passengers were able to do so.

“Failure to make a good entry into autorotation after the engine stops is one of the primary causes of helicopter accidents. The key to making a good entry is to keep the rotor speed up,” according to a lengthy article on helicopter safety in Aviation Week

The article notes there is “no margin for error.”

“Just witnessed a helicopter crash into the East River … hope everyone’s ok. Caught it all on tape!” wrote Twitter user @JJmagers, who posted the video online just after 7:15 p.m.

The northbound lane of the FDR was shut down during the rescue effort.

“It sort of landed sideways and then it flipped over. There was a good solid minute that no one came out of the helicopter,” said Brianna Jesme, 22, who witnessed the afternoon crash.

“We didn’t know if it was supposed to be happening. Once it went down we realized that it wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said.

Indeed, it almost looked like the helicopter was purposely setting down on the water. But within seconds, it was clear the craft was in distress.

It looked from eyewitness video that the helicopter may have deployed a flotation device underneath the craft before hit hit the water.

The NYPD’s Aviation and Harbor Unit rushed to the scene, as did the FDNY’s Harbor Unit, sending divers to search for the helicopter’s occupants, according to the NYDaily News.

“Our thoughts and hope for safe recovery are with those who were aboard. We are thankful for our first responders at the scene,” said New York Gov. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a statement.

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