Politicians debate NYC chopper rules after crash

October 5, 2011 - 8:15 PM
Chopper River

In this frame grab image taken from WCBS-TV, survivors cling to the bottom of a helicopter after it inverted following a crash in the East River in New York, Tuesday Oct. 4, 2011. The New York Police Department says the helicopter with five people aboard crashed into the river after taking off from a nearby heliport. The pilot and three others were pulled from the water shortly by rescue crews after it went down. Authorities were still searching for one other passenger, believed to be female, but the helicopter was fully submerged. (AP Photo/WCBS-TV) MANDATORY CREDIT WCBS-TV

NEW YORK (AP) — The fatal crash of a helicopter in the East River reignited a debate over whether to restrict their flights as investigators on Wednesday studied weather reports and instruments looking for clues to the accident's cause.

State and city legislators led by U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the crash underscored the danger of helicopter flights. They called for a ban on tourist flights and pleasure trips by privately owned aircraft at Manhattan's three riverside heliports.

"You're talking about the densest population center in the country, very, very tight, narrow corridors and a huge amount of volume," said state Sen. Daniel Squadron. "And even though they're not going over land, that's still a pretty dangerous cocktail."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a helicopter pilot, defended the flights.

"Helicopters are a very safe way to travel," he said. "There's three or four deaths in automobile accidents every single week in the city. ... Nobody's suggesting a ban on automobiles."

There have been 28 helicopter accidents in New York and 19 deaths since 1983, National Transportation Safety Board records show.

Aviation trade groups said any restrictions would be premature because investigators are still trying to determine what caused Tuesday's crash.

"You can't offer a solution to a problem you don't even understand yet," said Matt Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Association International, an advocacy group.

Commercial air tour companies are already limited to a heliport near Wall Street and only fly specific routes around the Hudson River and New York Bay. But the Bell 206 helicopter that crashed on Tuesday at the East 34th Street Heliport was on a private, non-commercial flight and was carrying only friends of the pilot.

The crash killed passenger Sonia Marra, a 40-year-old British citizen living in Australia. Another passenger, Helen Tamaki, was in critical condition with possible damage to her lungs and brain, her sister, Suzanne Tamaki, told the New Zealand Herald.

The helicopter might have been saved if it had been equipped with inflatable emergency pontoons, Zuccaro said. Air tour helicopters operating over water are required to have either pontoons or life jackets for each person, but private aircraft are not.

Investigators on Wednesday were examining the wreckage of the helicopter at a former Navy base in Brooklyn.

They were hoping to extract information that may have been stored by the aircraft's GPS navigation equipment, engine monitors or other instruments, said NTSB member Mark Rosekind. Experts were also talking to the pilot and reviewing videos of the crash for clues.

Rosekind said a piece of one of the helicopter's main rotor blades was missing, but it's unclear whether it broke before or after it crashed. The helicopter was built in 1976, and investigators were reviewing its maintenance logs, he said.

Experts also were studying the weather, which has been a key factor in other crashes at Manhattan heliports.

"One of the areas we're looking at are the winds," Rosekind said.

A weather reporting station at nearby LaGuardia Airport had reported gusts of up to 20 mph on Tuesday afternoon, and there were gusts to 25 mph at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Winds can sometimes be rougher along the river because of turbulence caused by tall buildings and bridges.

In June 2005, two helicopters crashed within four days of each other at the East 34th Street Heliport. One, a Sikorsky, took off in 17 to 26 mph winds and was caught by a tailwind that had been initially blocked by a building. The tailwind caused the helicopter to lose lift and drop suddenly into the water.

The other helicopter, a Bell 206 similar to the one that crashed on Tuesday, had taken off overweight and with a tailwind that made it more difficult to climb, the NTSB determined.

The NTSB also cited winds in the crash of helicopters in 1985, 1986, 1990 and 1997.

In 1993, a Bell 206 lost engine power but landed safely on the water after inflating its emergency pontoons.

The Federal Aviation Administration and city officials tightened the rules governing commercial sightseeing flights after a sightseeing helicopter and a light plane collided over the Hudson River, on the other side of Manhattan, in 2009.

Sightseeing flights now depart from the Wall Street heliport near Manhattan's southern tip and follow a strict route. Aircraft on the Hudson have to obey a 161 mph speed limit and call out their positions on the radio using landmarks.

But Nadler and other lawmakers have clamored to have tourist flights eliminated entirely.

"Yet another terrible tragedy involving a helicopter should send us a clear message in flashing neon lights," Nadler said in a written statement. "Sightseeing and nonessential helicopters are dangerous, unnecessary, and not worth it."

U.S. Rep. Carol Maloney, D-N.Y., sent a letter to Federal Aviation Administrator Randolph Babbitt on Wednesday calling helicopter traffic the "wild west of aviation" and asking him to review airspace rules over the city.

The pilot in Tuesday's crash, Paul Dudley, was a charter pilot who also managed the Linden, N.J., airport where many New York City helicopters are based. But on Tuesday he was flying for himself and his friends, Rosekind said.

Aviation advocates said the lawmakers were using the crash as an excuse to pick on tour companies.

"Any banning of tourist flights would not have prevented this tragedy," Jeff Smith, chairman of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, said in a written statement.

The passengers in Tuesday's flight were visiting New York to celebrate the birthdays of Marra and her stepfather, Paul Nicholson, 71.

They were accompanied by Nicholson's wife, Harriet Nicholson, 60; and a friend of Marra, Helen Tamaki, 43. The Nicholsons are British but live in Portugal; Marra, a British citizen, and Tamaki, a citizen of New Zealand, lived in Sydney, Australia.

The group had planned to do some sightseeing and then go to dinner.

Marra had worked at Galluzzo's fruit and vegetable market in the Sydney suburb of Glebe for the past three months, worker Joe Galluzzo said. Marra was thrilled when Tamaki surprised her with the trip to New York as a 40th birthday present, Galluzzo said.

Marra had not seen her relatives in years and was planning to meet up with them at the top of the Empire State Building as soon as she and Tamaki arrived in New York, Galluzzo said.

"Loved by the customers, fantastic personality — very bubbly," Galluzzo said of Marra. "She couldn't do enough for us. She was just a great, great person."

Fellow pilots at the Linden airport said Dudley is an experienced pilot in helicopters and airplanes. He has more than 2,200 flight hours under his belt as a pilot, including about 500 hours in the Bell 206, Rosekind said.

In 2006, he landed a Cessna 172 light plane in a park near Coney Island in Brooklyn after the engine failed. No one was hurt.

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Associated Press writers Samantha Gross in New York; Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand; Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia; and Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.