New York helicopter crash raises security questions about flying over cities


New York City Fire Department via Reuters

Panic in New York streets on Monday when a twin-engine Agusta A109E burst into flames on crashing into the AXA Equitable Centre in New York City. The building was evacuated without incident, the only fatality being the helicopter’s pilot.

The helicopter was Part 91 – privately-owned and operated – carrying only the pilot and the owner of the helicopter, who had taken off from a heliport on Manhattan’s east side.

The aircraft made one stop beforehand, where the pilot waited for a few hours after dropping off the owner. Poor weather conditions were expected.

The owner is Daniele Bodini, a well-established New York real estate businessman. He was the United Nations Ambassador to the Republic of San Marino, a small, independent country in northern Italy, from 2005 to 2016.

Talking of the pilot, a New York-based operator said: “He thought he found a window and decided to head to Linden. It was clearly bad judgement.” It was after taking off from the helipad at 34th Street, that the pilot became disoriented and lost control, eventually flying back towards the city.

A video on Twitter, filmed by an onlooker, shows the pilot losing control over the Hudson River:

The accident has raised security questions about helicopters flying over densely populated cities. A parallel with the May 16, 1977 Pan Am building crash can be drawn here.

A 2016 New York Times article summed up the 1977 crash: “A rotor blade broke off a helicopter on the roof of Manhattan’s Pan Am Building after the copter’s landing gear failed, causing it to turn sideways. The blade killed five people.” One of the people was killed by debris falling on the street below.

This led the National Transportation Safety Board to ban helipads on rooftops in New York City. The three public helipads are now restricted to the coasts of the island.

While helicopter incidents are relatively uncommon compared with other modes of transport, there have been two similar incidents in the past year itself – a tour helicopter which crashed and killed five people in March 2018 and a charter helicopter which plunged into the Hudson without any fatalities last month.

The operator said that this should not affect the charter market, as it was a part 91 operated helicopter. “This is like the Cirrus that went into a building on 72nd street years ago. But this is not unlike that kind of freak situation.”

He added that there are growing concerns about open-door helicopter operators like FlyNYON, which flies recreational photographers over the city.

Further, the imminent rise of eVTOLs and air taxis will bring an obvious set of challenges for regulatory bodies across the world.

“There is the argument that an unmanned system would not get disoriented. But either way – incidents like this are not good for anybody in the industry.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat said: “We cannot rely on good fortune to protect people on the ground. It is past time for the FAA to ban unnecessary helicopters from the skies over our densely-packed urban city. The risks to New Yorkers are just too high.”