Call For Answers And Better Regulation Following New York Helicopter Crash

Preliminary Report Into Incident Released


AVIATION law experts are calling on authorities to work quickly to determine the cause of the helicopter crash in New York last week (October 4) following today’s preliminary report into the fatal incident.

Lawyers at Irwin Mitchell, who are dealing with an increasing number of cases involving helicopter crashes, say that answers are needed, and that more must be done to improve safety regulations for private helicopters.

Sonia Marra died, and her partner Helen Tamaki, mother Harriet Nicholson and stepfather Paul were injured when a Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter spun out of control and crashed into the East River at the start of a private sightseeing trip across the city.

Witnesses stated the helicopter appeared to be in difficulty before the crash, while the pilot reported problems and tried to make an emergency return to the landing pad.

According to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), released today, the pilot reported initiating takeoff to the northeast and climbing to an estimated altitude of 30 – 50 feet. He then experienced a problem which included a small left yaw (turn) so he began to turn right, attempting to return to the helipad. 

The pilot then reported that the helicopter had become uncontrollable, and it hit the water.  The helicopter was manufactured in 1976 and its most recent annual inspection was performed on 2 October 2011, 2 days before the accident.

Irwin Mitchell’s specialist Aviation Law team acts for families who have lost loved ones in air accidents across the globe, including a growing number of helicopter crashes.

The experts are now calling on the NTSB to build on this initial report to provide a full picture of the tragic incident, while also demanding that authorities put new standards in place to improve flight safety regulations for private helicopters.

Jim Morris, a former RAF pilot and Partner in the specialist team, said: “Unfortunately this preliminary report does not give much detail on this terrible crash, so it is vital that the authorities work quickly to investigate the engine and all flight critical systems to confirm or rule out a mechanical problem. As the helicopter did not have a flight data recorder, analysis of the wreckage and further interviews with the pilot are critical. 

“From what the pilot is saying, it is possible that a mechanical problem caused him to lose control of the aircraft.  If a mechanical problem did contribute to this crash then it is vital that it is identified by the NTSB so that the same problem doesn’t re-occur on other Bell Jet Ranger helicopters.”

Jim added that another issue to consider is whether a high takeoff weight combined with unfavourable wind conditions may have played a part in the incident. A number of crashes on the East River in previous years – including two in 2005 – have cited these as contributing factors.

He said: “If the helicopter was close to maximum take-off weight with a tail wind component, the take-off process would have been more difficult, requiring more planning and skill from the pilot.  The preliminary report states that the wind was light and variable which indicates that the wind should not have caused a problem.  However, the east river can be susceptible to gusts and eddies so the possibility of a stronger gust during takeoff needs to be considered.”

When a helicopter needs to gain height after take-off, it uses engine power, ground effect and transitional lift.  When the take-off weight is high, the engine is at the limit of its ability to climb using power alone, so the pilot is heavily reliant on ground effect and transitional lift. 

Ground effect improves the lift of the rotor blades when the helicopter is flying a few feet over a hard flat surface.  Transitional lift is an increase in lift resulting from a headwind flowing over the rotor blades or air flowing over the rotor blades due to forward speed. 

If the Bell Jet ranger did take off with a tail wind component, it would not have had the transitional lift benefit of a headwind, and as it moved from the hard surface of the landing pad over water it may have lost the benefit of ground effect suddenly. 

With a low forward speed, the engine may not have had enough power to climb when at maximum power.  Additionally, in this situation the tail rotor is less effective, meaning that a gust of wind could cause the aircraft to rotate. 

Jim believes that if this was the situation on the day in question, the pilot could simply have run out of options as the helicopter spun and descended into the water. He says a review of regulations for private helicopters is urgently needed.

He said: “We have seen a disturbing increase in the number of helicopter crashes we are being contacted about.  While high standards of flight safety are critically important to all aircraft types, it is particularly important for single engine helicopters that operate in confined spaces, at low heights and over water, when there is little margin for error during certain parts of the flight, particularly during take-off.”

Irwin Mitchell’s Aviation Law team also have concerns about the general safety of private helicopter sightseeing flights from Manhattan’s riverside airports.  Commercial helicopters that operate over water are required to have emergency floats but private helicopters are not. 

Clive Garner, who heads the team, said: “It appears that this helicopter was not fitted with emergency floats – had it been it is highly unlikely that it would have sunk.  Even if the spin caused it to invert, the floats should have kept it on the surface of the water, meaning that Sonia could have been recovered from the helicopter much more quickly and may have survived. 

“Regardless of the NTSB’s findings, I urge the FAA to change the regulations for private helicopters to require emergency floats to be fitted if the helicopter is going to fly over water.

“Our thoughts are with the victims and their families.”