Expert: Simple device may have prevented East River helicopter crash

NEW YORK (WABC) -- NTSB investigators are taking a closer look at a fatal 2008 helicopter crash in Alaska that involved the same model aircraft that went down in the East River on Sunday, and the similarities are striking.

When the AS-350 helicopter crashed in 2008, the NTSB initially concluded it was caused by a passenger's backpack or foot bumping the fuel control lever on the floor causing a loss of engine power. The NTSB changed the finding five years later, instead blaming an engine mechanical problem.

Nevertheless, it exposed a real vulnerability with critical fuel controls mounted on the floor of the AS-350, which prompted some modifications.

Last Sunday, when another AS-350 operated by Liberty Helicopter tours plunged into the East River, the pilot reportedly told rescuers that a passenger's strap or bag accidentally activated the fuel emergency switch. Although still not determined, the crash has again raised questions about the critical controls on the floor of AS-350s, especially the Fuel Emergency Lever.

"It's fairly easy to pull it back, and that's intentional, so just a simple tug would be sufficient to move it back into the shut-off position," helicopter pilot and aviation attorney Brian Alexander said. "As soon as that's pulled back, you cut off the fuel to the engine."

Five people died, identified as 34-year-old Daniel Thompson and 29-year-old Tristan Hill, both of New York; 26-year-old Trevor Cadigan and 26-year-old Brian McDaniel, both of Dallas; and 29-year-old Carla Vallejos-Blanco, of Argentina.

In 1995, Canadian Investigators blamed the crash of an AS-350 medical copter in part on accidental movement of fuel flow control, which caused a total loss of engine power. Our investigation has learned that to prevent this, the manufacturer, Airbus, gives buyers of the AS-350 the option to install a plexiglass shield between the floor fuel controls and the front passenger seat.

"It's a combination of metal support and then a clear support guard," Alexander said. "Without this being there, you're left with an unfettered ability, again, for a strap to get down and caught on the fuel shut off valve and cause an engine failure."

Our investigation has confirmed that the Liberty helicopter that crashed did NOT have the safety shield. One source who worked at Liberty tells Eyewitness News neither the helicopter that crashed nor others AS-350s operated by Liberty have the safety shield.

"So if it's not there, you've certainly dramatically increased the risk," Alexanders said.

If the NTSB determines that, as the pilot first reported, the fuel lever was inadvertently activated, the safety agency may recommend that these optional fuel guards be mandatory. They could even go as far as recommending the fuel controls be mounted on the dashboard of AS-350s like most other helicopters, including NewsCopter7.

"There's no way we could shut off that fuel valve," NewsCopter7 reporter Shannon Sohn said. "It's all the way over on pilot side. We would literally have to reach across lift up the safety latch, then put on the valve."

In the wake of the East River crash, the FAA has ordered that there be no more so-called "doors off" flights that use restraints that cannot be released quickly.

FAA statement:

"Operators, pilots, and consumers should be aware of the hazard presented by supplemental restraint devices in the event of an emergency evacuation during "doors off" flights. The FAA will order operators and pilots to take immediate actions to control or mitigate this risk. Until then, the FAA will order no more "doors off" operations that involve restraints that cannot be released quickly in an emergency. Additionally, the FAA will conduct a top to bottom review of its rules governing these flights to examine any potential misapplication that could create safety gaps for passengers. "


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