Harnesses likely kept passengers from escaping helicopter crash, experts say

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Following Sunday's deadly helicopter crash in the East River, aviation experts are decrying the harnesses used by doors-off photography excursions such as those used by the tour provider involved in the crash, FlyNyon.

The harnesses are designed to be more secure than a traditional aircraft seatbelt, but in the case of this emergency, may have contributed to all five passengers deaths.

While the pilot escaped the helicopter, all five passengers did not.

Divers discovered them still strapped to the helicopter by their harnesses and had to cut them loose.

"It's important to differentiate that the flight yesterday (Sunday) was not operating as a traditional sight-seeing flight, so they had a different tether in place for their passengers," said John Del Giorno, Eyewitness News helicopter pilot.

Unlike traditional helicopter seatbelts, these more-complex restraints resemble rock climbing gear.

A passenger on board a sister flight operated by FlyNyon Sunday night said the company showed a safety video but didn't physically demonstrate how to escape the harnesses.

"I can't be sure I would have been able to get myself out fast enough," said Eric Adams, a photographer and freelance journalist.

Adams said the video indicated passengers had two options for escaping the harnesses, cutting loose with a knife and unhooking a tether attached to their backs.

"All I know is that when I got into my flight, I didn't know how to get the tether off my back or where the knife was," Adams said. "We are not only harnessed in, we were belted in. So, there are two things you have to get past."

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Danielle Leigh reports on the safety issues of tour helicopter harnesses.

On Company videos 'FlyNyon' advertises their "8-point safety harnesses" specially designed to keep passengers securely strapped to the helicopter, allowing them to dangle from the doorless craft snapping photos hundreds of feet above New York City.

A company safety message promises customers the harnesses, "go beyond industry safety standards" and help ensure "the best and safest experience possible."

JP Tristani, a former pilot and aviation expert, said those very seatbelts coupled with a lack of passenger training made for a deadly combination following Sunday's crash.

"These people had no chance," Tristani said. "Only a highly trained individual would be able to stay calm enough to accept the roll in the water, work to free the harness or whatever it is, and swim clear. You can't expect people who are untrained to watch a video, and then, without any real hands-on drill, expect them to react in survivability mode."

Monday afternoon, a spokesperson for the NTSB confirmed the design of the harnesses would be a focus of the investigation.

"That is something we will be looking into," said NTSB Board Member Bella Dinh-Zarr.

This crash is now renewing demands that the FAA end doors-off expedition flights at the very least for amateurs, and order changes to the design of safety harnesses.

"You should have a harness with all of these devices that requires only a fist bump to detach," Tristani said.

Eyewitness News reached out to the parent company for FlyNyon, Nyon Air, regarding concerns about the safety of the harnesses used in the flight and the amount of training passengers receive before a flight.

The company declined comment due to the ongoing NTSB and FAA investigations.

A spokesperson provided a statement reading, "We extend our deepest sympathies to the family members and loved ones of those involved in this tragic event."

Adams said he hoped the FAA and NTSB would take a close look at the harnesses and implement changes to improve safety and training ahead of flights.

"It's really horrifying and I hope that something come from this," Adams said adding that while the tragedy was a wakeup call he would continue seeking these kinds of aviation experiences.

"I believe this is a wonderful way to experience the city, to experience the world, and I know from 20 years from covering the aviation industry how safe it is, and this was a very rare day for aviation in general," Adams said.


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