Pilot in East River chopper crash says emergency fuel lever inadvertently shut off

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The pilot of the helicopter that crashed into the East River in New York last Sunday has told federal safety investigators that moments before the craft hit the water, he noticed a passenger tether under the emergency fuel shutoff lever, which had been inadvertently shifted up into the off position – but by then, he said, it was too late to restart the engine.

In a 2010 letter to the FAA reviewed by ABC News, the NTSB had warned the agency of incidents in which straps had “become entwined” with fuel levers on choppers like the one that crashed in the East River. The manufacturer, Eurocopter, added additional lever locking devices to new models starting in 2012. The chopper that crashed was manufactured in 2013.

The pilot, the sole survivor of the crash that killed five passengers, says he twice briefed them on how to use the cutting tools placed on the harnesses if they needed to cut themselves out, according to the NTSB.

At one point, the pilot said he noticed the front passenger’s restraint was hanging from the seat and asked him to put it back on. This was not unusual, he said, as passengers were moving around to take pictures, the report said.

Shortly thereafter, the same passenger turned sideways and extended his feet outside the helicopter, according to the preliminary report, which does not discuss the probable cause of the accident.

The doors of the chopper were open – something the FAA banned for flights that don’t use quick-release restraint systems in the wake of the crash.

It was at that moment that the chopper began to suffer what appeared at the time to be an engine failure, the pilot told investigators.

PHOTO: FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro, center, and NYPD Commissioner James ONeill, to his right, hold a news conference after a helicopter crashed in the East River in Manhattan on March 11, 2018.FDNY
FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro, center, and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, to his right, hold a news conference after a helicopter crashed in the East River in Manhattan on March 11, 2018.

After telling the passengers to get back in their seats as the aircraft began to descend, the pilot attempted to restart the engine, but his first two tries were unsuccessful, he said in an NTSB interview.

He began to prepare for a water landing and activated floats on the helicopter’s skids at about 800 feet.

He reached down and noticed the emergency fuel shutoff lever was in the “off” position and a portion of the front seat passenger’s tether was underneath the lever, according to his account.

He turned the fuel lever back on, tried to restart the engine and it began to work, but he didn’t have enough altitude to fully restart, he told investigators. He positioned the lever back to off, hit the water, climbed up onto the belly and called for help, he said.

The manufacturer – rebranded in 2014 as Airbus Helicopters – did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.



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