National Transportation Safety Board investigators are examining every part of the helicopter, brought in French aviation experts, and then interviewed witnesses, conducted interviews with first responders and with rescuers, interviewed the helicopter company’s chief pilot and even spoke with New York Police Department about victims’ personal effects. The one person the NTSB has not yet spoken to is the pilot, Richard “Rick” Vance.
“Interview with accident pilot to be scheduled,” said the NTSB. It is unclear why Vance has not been interviewed and why there’s not even a date yet set for an interview.
Vance was the lone survivor of the crash under bright, clear blue skies over New York City Sunday. Vance reportedly told police a strap from passenger luggage flipped off an emergency switch, the New York Post reported. Then Vance said it was a loose passenger tether which experts and even the NTSB said was unlikely.
The Post reported an expert said the switched off lever explanation was “highly implausible.” The lever is on the floor by the pilot’s seat and needs to be pulled back, the expert told the paper. Aviation lawyer Gary Robb said it’s more likely “the pilot simply activated the wrong lever.”
When asked about the pilot’s claim Monday at a news conference, NTSB Vice Chair Bella Dinh-Zarr said the agency has seen it all but added, “I have personally not seen this type of accident happen.”
When the helicopter went in the water it was “substantially damaged,” the NTSB said and “subsequently rolled inverted during an autorotation.” In other words, the helicopter was upside down in the frigid East River. Vance escaped using a raft and screamed for help and was rescued by a passing tugboat. But the five passengers were, tragically, harnessed so tightly into their seats there was no escape. NYPD divers freed them eventfully, cutting them out, but two of the passengers were already dead and officials said three were transported to Bellevue in critical condition. Within a few hours, they too were dead.
The NTSB said in its first report, which does not yet determine the cause of the crash, that Vance radioed LaGuardia Airport air traffic control tower for entry into the Class B airspace while flying at an altitude of 2,000 feet.
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Approximately five minutes later, the pilot declared “Mayday” and stated that the helicopter’s engine had failed. “Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the scheduled 30-minute aerial photography flight that was operated by Liberty Helicopters under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.” NTSB-speak for a beautiful cloudless sky where you could see for miles. The flight originated from Helo Kearny Heliport in Kearny, New Jersey, not from the 6 East River Piers as previously reported.
The NTSB lists “significant activities” accomplished Tuesday.
Physical examination of the accident helicopter at New York Police Department’s Aviation Unit
headquarters in Brooklyn by airworthiness, powerplant, and survival factors investigator
Engine was prepared for removal and teardown
Helicopter structure and systems examined by airworthiness investigators.
Rotor and flight control systems examination initiated
Survival factors investigators examined and documented passenger restraint system
Investigators interviewed Liberty Helicopters’ chief pilot
Interviewed witnesses and rescue personnel
Interview with accident pilot to be scheduled
NTSB’s Transportation Disaster Assistance team consulted with NYPD regarding personal effects
Recovered electronic devices, including a Go-Pro camera, which is being sent to the NTSB laboratories in Washington for readout
Parties to the NTSB investigation are the Federal Aviation Administration, Liberty Helicopters and the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la sécurité de l’aviation civile (BEA France). Airbus Helicopters and Safran Helicopter Engines are technical advisors to the investigation.