5 People Died in a Helicopter Crash in New York City's East River. I Was There.
As a passenger in an accompanying helicopter, I know how hard it would have been to escape that crash.
Just after sunset on Sunday, March 11 in New York City, a single-engine Eurocopter AS350 helicopter crashed into the East River, killing all five passengers enjoying a photo-oriented sunset sightseeing tour of Manhattan. Since it was a doors-off flight, all of them were harnessed in and belted. The pilot—Richard Vance, the only occupant not fully harnessed—was the only survivor.
The helicopters were owned and operated by Fly Liberty Charter, and the flights sold by FlyNYON, which specializes in aerial tours and photo flights. I was on another helicopter that took off at the same time as the aircraft that crashed. We were all in the same safety briefing prior to the flights, and we all suited up in our harnesses together and rode over in buses to the helicopters as a group. These photos of mine show the helicopter that crashed—tail number N350LH—minutes before the accident.
I’ve covered aviation as a journalist for more than 15 years, for Wired, Popular Science, Air & Space/Smithsonian, and others, and this includes multiple accident-related pieces as well as a 10-day FAA course in aircraft accident investigation. There’s no doubt in my mind that the harnesses likely hindered the passengers’ ability to escape from the sinking aircraft. They would have been virtually impossible to release, given the lack of experience and training of the passengers on board as well as the awkward geometry of the harnesses themselves. This seems to have clearly been the case. (Obviously, a full investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board will determine the root cause of the accident itself and the cause and contributing factors of the passenger’s deaths. This article merely recounts my own observations and impressions of the flight and the circumstances.)
I arrived at the FlyNYON terminal, located in Kearny, New Jersey, at about 5:30 p.m., the time we were all instructed to arrive for the 6:45 flight in order to allow enough time for the safety briefing and suiting up. These flights are typically a mix of two groups: 1) Professional or advanced amateur photographers looking to capture the city, and 2) tourists or locals who want to go on sightseeing flights. FlyNYON has taken advantage of recent social-media enthusiasm for dramatic aerials by offering these dedicated, doors-off photo excursions. I’ve done three such flights myself, as well as many other helicopter and airplane photo-flights in New York and elsewhere. I took this flight because I’d prepaid for a seat at a discount back in December, and this looked like a great day to fly and get some great images of the city at sunset.
As I gathered my camera gear and outerwear at my car, one of the other passengers—Brian McDaniel, who was later on the accident aircraft—came over and asked if I was flying, and if I’d done these flights before. He seemed intensely excited about the flight, and eager to get a sense of what to expect. I immediately noticed what he was wearing. It was cool out, but not cold, and he had on just a t-shirt and light jacket. I knew how cold the flights could be in winter, given the relentless downwash from the rotors above, so I felt a little worried for him. I had on a wool baselayer, hiking pants, wool sweater, ski parka, wool cap, and thick gloves. I don’t recall any mention by FlyNYON about the temperature and wind conditions on the flights prior to our arrival, and it was clear later that most of the passengers on the crash aircraft were similarly underdressed. I asked McDaniel if he had a heavier jacket or gloves, and he smiled and shook his head. I said he’d probably be okay.
Once inside, we had a safety briefing that included a video showing, among other things, how the harnesses worked and demonstrating the use of a knife that was attached to the harness and with which you could cut yourself free from the tether that anchored you to the floor of the helicopter in an emergency. There were no pilots present, and no one who appeared to be in any real leadership role there. (In my previous flights, when the company was smaller, there was usually a pilot present and in one case one of the founders.) After the video, they talked briefly about which helicopters we’d all be flying in. There were three going up at the same time—one 15-minute flight and two 30-minute trips, the latter of which I had signed on for. The FlyNYON representative told the group that anyone on the 15-minute flight who wanted to upgrade could do so, and based on the enthusiasm that was building, three people elected to upgrade. I believe all three were on the accident aircraft.
We then proceeded to the room where we’d put on our harnesses. The employees told us to take everything out of our pockets and to stash it all in a big locker, from which we’d retrieve it after the flights. I put in my backpack, which had my phone, car keys, and some extra gear inside. We then put on our harnesses, including tethering our cameras and smartphones—via special brackets that FlyNYON provided—to the straps embedded in the harnesses. At no point did anyone point out where precisely the knife was on my harness. Presumably it was near shoulder height, but I didn’t have hands-on knowledge of its whereabouts, which likely would have helped with muscle memory should I have needed it. It’s possible, of course, that other passengers were shown the knife’s position. It’s also possible that even without that instruction I could still have easily found it by just looking down or feeling along the straps—but when every second counts and water is rushing into your helicopter, you may not have even that kind of time, plus whatever additional time it takes to figure out how to release it from its sleeve.
After we got our harnesses on, we were then each weighed with all our gear and we made our way outside to a pair of small vans that would take us to the helicopters. There we divided up and the ground crews began strapping us in. Admittedly, we were anxious to get in the air, because the sun was setting, but that didn’t influence the pace of the preparations as I observed them. We were each instructed on where and how to sit, they attached the tethers to our harnesses, and then buckled us in via the seats’ conventional belts. They double-checked each of our harnesses. What I should have done immediately was reach around to see if I could find and release the carabiner and verify the placement of the knife. I didn’t, and nobody asked me to do so. I don’t recall whether the carabiner was a locking one or a freely-opening model, which would make a huge difference in how quickly you could extricate yourself if you even could reach the carabiner. The fact that I didn’t know that is a problem, in hindsight. So, for that matter, could be the standard seat belt present, given the challenge of trying to locate a relatively loose seat belt buckle in an emergency on a flight like this. (Other aircraft use four-point quick-release harnesses, which are faster and more intuitive.)
I believe the boarding and harnessing process was similar in the other two helicopters, and I kept an eye on the aircraft to my right—the accident aircraft—during the process, for no other reason than because they were all so excited about the flight, and it was enjoyable watching them get ready. Our aircraft had several experienced photographers on board, and one young woman who was a beginner; as a result, the vibe in our helicopter was a bit more sedate than the other, where everyone was already rehearsing their selfie angles.
At approximately 6:45, the three helicopters started their turbine engines and the rotors began spinning slowly. After a few minutes of warmup, we lifted off in sequence—the 15-minute flight first, then our helicopter, then the other 30-minute flight that would soon become the crash aircraft. We flew first to the Statue of Liberty, which we lapped two times in order to see from all sides. During these flights, there are often many aircraft buzzing by from all directions. I know I saw others, but I certainly spotted the red helicopter from FlyNYON, and captured the above images of it as it circled the statue with us. I didn’t notice anything wrong with the helicopter, but wasn’t entirely focused on it as an aircraft so much as a subject.
Eventually, both of our aircraft continued our flights up the East River. We began to climb in the hopes of achieving a “second sunset”—where you get high enough and the sun peeks back over the horizon. At that point, though, our pilot seemed to abandon that idea and start flying up the East River. We found out later that he was being instructed by either his ground team or air traffic control to look for the downed N350LH helicopter. We didn’t know because our headsets were set to only provide the pilot's communication with us, rather than his radio communications with the ground and other aircraft. So we had no idea that something was wrong until we landed. We merely edged up the East River as our pilot scanned the water—until he either spotted the aircraft or was instructed to continue his flight, I’m still not sure which—then continued across Central Park, down the Hudson, and then west to our starting point in Kearny.
When we returned to the heliport, I noticed that the red helicopter wasn’t there, but didn’t think anything of it since it was entirely possible that we simply arrived first. When the pilot stopped the engine and as we waited for the rotors to stop spinning before climbing out, he mentioned that we had to “divert from our flight path a little” while over the East River. Again, I hadn’t noticed this—I was busy taking photos, and assumed that all movements were simply putting us into position—so I asked how we diverted. At that moment he remembered that we didn’t have the radio communication piped into our headsets—just his own comments to us. He told me that one of the other helicopters had gone down.
At first I thought he was joking, because he had what was clearly (in hindsight) a nervous grin. So I asked him to clarify.
“It went down? You mean crashed?” I asked.
“Yeah, but it looks like they got everyone out okay,” he said, clearly unaware of the full extent of the unfolding tragedy.
“They went into the water?” I asked, still in shock.
“Yeah,” he said.
We got out and took the bus back to the terminal about a half-mile away. Once inside, the mood was still professional, but increasingly nervous—as nobody there truly knew what had transpired. We took off our harnesses and went over to the locker to retrieve our items. Once all of our gear was out, at the bottom, of course, sat the wallets, keys, and purses of those aboard the red helicopter. That’s when it hit home; even though I had no indication there were fatalities or even serious injuries, it was ominous. A water-landing in the middle of winter, strapped in via incredibly-secure harnesses? I wondered what chance they really stood.
Unfortunately, the answer came over night, when it became clear that all the passengers had died: Daniel Thompson, 34, and Tristian Hill, 29, both of New York; Trevor Cadigan, 26, Brian McDaniel, 26, both of Dallas; and Carla Vallejos Blanco, 29, of Argentina. Cardigan, McDaniel, and Blanco were the three who opted for the upgrade from the 15-minute flight.
When their helicopter went down—ABC News reports the pilot told investigators one of the passenger harnesses became tangled with the fuel shut-off switch, cutting off the supply to the engine—the inflatable floats on the skids weren’t fully inflated, a police source told the New York Daily News, so the helicopter tipped over and began filling with water immediately thanks to the open doors. Only the pilot, Vance, was able to get out quickly, and he apparently did all he could under the circumstances, including summoning help as fast as possible. The others were evidently unable to extricate themselves from their tethers or the helicopter itself.
In hindsight, I don’t know for sure that I could have either, even with my experience level and awareness of the attachment mechanisms. What would have mattered more in a situation like that was what I didn’t know—where the knife was, how to unhook myself quickly—not necessarily what I did. Again, the NTSB investigation will reveal much about what transpired, and what could be done to ensure that nothing like it ever happens again. (If true, the harness entanglement alone merits significant reworking of the system.) In the meantime, the faces of the passengers on that flight—the briefest of friendships—will stay with me for a very long time.