Are helicopter tours safe?

Soo Kim
A helicopter tour over Manhattan in New York City - ©katy_89 -

A deadly helicopter crash in New York City this week has raised again concerns over the safety of helicopter tours.

All five passengers on board the Eurocopter AS350 were killed after its engine failed shortly before it plunged into the East River near the northern tip of Roosevelt Island. The group had reportedly chartered the flight from Liberty Helicopters for a photoshoot of the Manhattan skyline. 

The pilot was the only survivor of the crash, while two passengers were killed instantly. The remaining three were rushed to hospital where they died from their injuries.

The incident is being investigated by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which sent a team of 14 investigators to the scene this week. It is expected to take several months before any preliminary conclusions are revealed.

The wreckage of a chartered Liberty Helicopters helicopter that crashed into the East River is hoisted from the water in New York Credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON

"We are focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and on fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB investigations," Liberty Helicopters said in a statement.

Safety harnesses had to be cut to free the passengers from the helicopter. One of the victims on board was a firefighter, who is trained to untangle himself from hoses and yet wasn’t able to do so in this incident, and it has raised concerns over the safety briefing of passengers and how easy the helicopter’s features are to operate.

“There’s either some type of issue with the restraints or not opening the door soon enough so that they can get out. Once the water pressure is great enough, they won’t be able to open those doors," Michael Slack, an aviation lawyer and licensed pilot, told USA Today. “Those things are supposed to have a quick-release," he said. "[Passengers] are supposed to be briefed ahead of time."

The Grand Canyon is another popular area for sightseeing tours Credit: Cover Images/JFL/ZJOGJFL/ZJOG

The helicopter was taken to a secure facility for further examination, according to the NTSB, and the investigators, who have yet to speak the surviving pilot, will reportedly examine the functioning of the harnesses and what might have caused the helicopter to tip over on relatively calm water. 

Have there been other similar accidents in New York?

The latest incident is the third crash in 11 years involving Liberty Helicopters, which has been operating for more than 30 years.

The two other cases included a fatal one in 2009 that left all nine people on board, including the pilot, dead after the helicopter (a similar make to the one involved in this week’s accident) collided with another plane over the Hudson River.

Issues around the pilots being unable to see and avoid each other in the moments before the collision were deemed to be the cause of the crash, according to the NTSB.

“This collision could have been prevented,” former NTSB board chairman, Deborah Hersman, said at the time, USA Today reports.

“While traffic alerts go a long way in helping pilots ‘see and avoid’ other aircraft, these technologies are not, in and of themselves, enough to keep us safe," she added.  

'The Miracle on the Hudson' was the most famous plane crash in New York's Hudson River in recent years Credit: 2009 Getty Images/Mario Tama

Another helicopter run by the same company crashed into the Hudson River in 2007, but the pilot and the seven passengers on board were rescued and uninjured.

The recent fatal crash has prompted New York State senator Chuck Schumer to call on the FAA to suspend the operating license of Liberty Helicopters.

"I am calling on the FAA to issue an emergency order and suspend Liberty Helicopter’s 135 operating certificate until their safety record and the circumstances of this crash are fully assessed," Mr Schumer told local New York radio programme 1010 Wins.

"Three is too many, there are too many allegations, no one knows what’s happened. I don’t think Liberty should be flying until we get to the bottom of this."

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The most famous aviation incident to occur on the Hudson River in recent years involved a plane rather than a helicopter, when US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese shortly after taking off from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, causing the plane to lose all engine power.

The pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, safely landed the Airbus A320 in the Hudson River, an event that became known as ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’.

How common are helicopter crashes?

For a relatively niche mode of transport, helicopter crashes seem to occur fairly frequently.

Just last month, a fatal helicopter crash in the west rim of the Grand Canyon saw three Britons killed. Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, the firm which operated the sightseeing flight, receives around 600,000 passengers a year for trips around the US national park.  

Last month’s accident was not the first fatal helicopter crash involving a Grand Canyon tour operator. One of the deadliest in the area occurred in 1986 when 25 were killed following a collision between a twin-engine sightseeing plane and a helicopter at Scorpion Creek near Crystal Rapids at the south rim of the canyon.

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The crash took place at the start of the peak tourist season in June and sparked an fierce debate over the safety of flights over the US national park.

Furthermore, last month's incident at the Grand Canyon wasn't the first to involve Papillon. In August 2001, another of its helicopter tours ended in tragedy when it crashed near Meaview, Arizona, killing the pilot and five passengers. The pilot's decision to descend too fast and too close to the scenic Grand Wash Cliffs was blamed for the incident, according to a US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report issued in 2004.

And in 1999, a helicopter operated by Papillon hit a tree, killing a pilot and leaving an instructor seriously injured.

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Earlier this year also saw five fatalities after a crash in a remote area of New Mexico. Charles Burnett III, a British-born investor, and Roy Bennett, a Zimbabwean opposition leader, were among those who died while travelling to a ranch in the US state.

Londoners will also recall the 2013 incident in which a helicopter crashed after colliding with a crane attached to Vauxhall Tower. Two people died, the pilot and a pedestrian, while several others were injured.  

But statistics suggest that helicopter crashes are becoming rarer. In the US, both the helicopter accident rate and fatal helicopter accident rate have fallen in recent years, according to the FAA, from 4.95/1.02 per 100,000 flight hours in 2013 to 3.19/0.51 per 100,000 flight hours in 2016. That equates to a total drop from 146 accidents to 106, and 30 fatal accidents to 17.

One of the deadliest helicopter crashes in the Grand Canyon can be traced back to 1986 when 25 people died Credit: AP

"Prior to 2006, the number of worldwide civil helicopter accidents was rising at a rate of 2.5 percent per year," says the FAA. "Since 2006, the worldwide civil helicopter fleet has grown by 30 per cent but the number of accidents has decreased in key global regions by 30 to 50 per cent."

The European Helicopter Safety Team says that 311 accidents were reported in Europe between 2000 and 2005; this fell to 162 between 2006 and 2010.

Are helicopters more dangerous than planes?

On the face of it, yes. The FAA says the fatal accident rate across all aviation types is 0.84 per 100,000 flight hours, significantly less than the 1.02 reported for helicopters. But the fact that helicopters are used in risky operations, such as search and rescue missions, in war zones, and sometimes in bad weather, skews this figure.

What should I look for when booking a helicopter tour?

"Beyond checking that the company concerned has the necessary local licences and permits, and is well reviewed on social media, it’s simply not feasible for a tourist to judge whether or not a particular adventure excursion - whether it is a helicopter flight, white water rafting or a pony trek - is going to be well-run and safe," explains Nick Trend, Telegraph Travel's consumer expert.

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"But you will have better legal protection if you book it as part of a package holiday with a UK-based tour operator. It will then be liable for your safety, and should ensure that the local company it has booked you with is properly licensed and professionally operated. If there are problems or an accident, then you will also  - if necessary - be able to follow up in the UK courts."