Pup, Pup in the Air
Schumer Blasts ‘Doors-Off’ Chopper Flights That Now Carry Dogs
A dog aboard a similar flight, as the FlyNYON aircraft cruises
high above the Statue of Liberty.
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer announced yesterday that a New Jersey-based helicopter tour operator — still being investigated for a March, 2018 crash in the East River that killed five people — is continuing to operate “doors-off” flights over Manhattan that cater to thrill seekers, under the legal pretext of running a commercial photography service. He also revealed that the same company, FlyNYON, is now offering the option to bring dogs aboard such flights.
“It is outrageous that despite the deaths of five innocent people in a dangerous doors-off chopper flight, and two active Federal investigations into lapsed safety, that FlyNYON is still operating those same flights at desperate discounts. But now, it is a sheer jaw-drop to know that the same company is strapping in dogs for people to snap pictures of while the animals all but dangle high above New York skies,” Mr. Schumer said at a Sunday press conference. He added that, “strapping in dogs for dangerous doors-off flights over New York is just totally repugnant; another disaster-in-waiting.”
Senator Chuck Schumer: “It is outrageous that despite the deaths of five innocent people in a dangerous doors-off chopper flight, and two active Federal investigations into lapsed safety, that FlyNYON is still operating those same flights.”
Senator Schumer explained that the federal license under which FlyNYON operates is based on the firm’s claim to offer “aerial photography” helicopter flights, which are meant to cater to professionals, such as media personnel and surveyors, rather than passengers hoping for a striking view. The fact that these passengers are encouraged to take pictures during such flights arguably brings the company into technical compliance with the letter, if not the intent, of these regulations
On March 11, 2018, five passengers in a FlyNYON helicopter were killed when the aircraft crashed into the East River. This raised concerns separate from the immediate danger to passengers onboard such flights, which are especially resonant as the eighteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 approaches. What had never been publicly acknowledged before the March 11 incident was that passengers on “doors-off” flights, who wear cumbersome safety harnesses to prevent them being ejected from the aircraft as it banks and dives, are also issued knives with which to cut themselves out of these restraints in an emergency.
These blades did not save any of the passengers on the March 11 tourism flight. But in the hands of a terrorist with some cockpit training, they could be used to kill a pilot, whose body would then be tossed out of the helicopter, before the hijacker took the controls and dove it into a local target, such as the newly rebuilt World Trade Center.
Passengers aboard a FlyNYON “doors-off” flight bank over the Brooklyn Bridge.
This worry is compounded by the fact that the heliport from which FlyNYON operates, in Kearny, New Jersey, is not staffed by screeners from the Transportation Security Administration, who check passangers at major airports for weapons. As Delia von Neuschatz, a Battery Park City resident and member of Stop the Chop/NY-NJ — a grassroots coalition of waterfront residents in Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and New Jersey that is lobbying to scale back the flight tours — told the Broadsheet in 2014, “nobody who gets on those flights is searched or screened the way every passenger is at LaGuardia and Kennedy and Newark Airports. But the site of the worst terrorist attack in American history, which was perpetrated using hijacked aircraft,” is just a few minutes flying time from this facility. “So anybody who wants to take control of a helicopter and dive it into a building in Lower Manhattan would just have to pretend to be a tourist, pay for a ticket, and get onboard.”
In this scenario, even if rigorous security and passenger screening measures were implemented at a heliport from which “doors-off” flights originate, it would make no difference, because every passenger is provided with a deadly weapon after boarding.
Helicopter tourism flights have been a chronic a source of controversy for more than a decade among Lower Manhattan residents, who see a detriment to quality of life as well as a hazard to public health and safety in the flights that originate each day from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport and ferry tourists up and down the Hudson River waterfront.
One reason for the high concentration of tourist flights at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport is that few other facilities will permit such operations. In recent years, tourist flights have been banned from two other Manhattan heliports (one at the 34th Street and the East River; the other at 30th Street and the Hudson River), as well as from a waterfront heliport in Jersey City, directly across the Hudson River from the Battery Park City Esplanade.
The scene on the East River in March, 2018, where a FlyNYON “doors-off”flight crashed, killing all five people onboard.
In July, 2013, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez and U.S. Congressman Albio Sires (both Democrats from New Jersey) called for a complete prohibition of helicopter tour flights over the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. (The mayors of five New Jersey cities and towns joined in this call for a ban: Hoboken, Weehawken, North Bergen, West New York, and Guttenberg.) Their proposal was never enacted.
In 2014, a coalition of two dozen local elected officials wrote to Mayor de Blasio asking him to ban helicopter tours. The de Blasio administration has thus far declined to take any such action.
These concerns were highlighted in 2009, when a tour helicopter (flying out of the West 30th Street heliport) collided with a small private plane over the Hudson River, between Hoboken and Manhattan’s Meat Packing District. All nine people in both aircraft were killed.
According to official data, sightseeing and tourist flights are the third leading category of fatal helicopter accidents. In 2016, the nationwide helicopter accident rate was 3.19 per 100,000 flight hours, with an overall total of 106 helicopter accidents, including 17 that resulted in loss of life.
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