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Are helicopter harnesses more deadly than helpful?

As a New York resident or tourist, you may have taken an exciting "doors off" scenic helicopter flight in the past or are contemplating taking one in the future. Before you do so, however, you should be aware that this may be a deadly decision.

As reported by CNN, a Liberty Helicopters charter flight crashed in New York's East River last March, killing all five of its passengers who were on a private photo shoot. They died by drowning when the safety harnesses they were wearing failed to release. It was the deadliest "doors off" crash in history and the third crash for Liberty Helicopters in the last 11 years.

"Doors-off" flights and harnesses

A "doors-off" flight is one in which the helicopter's sides are removed so that passengers can turn in their seats and take unobstructed photos out the open sides. The harnesses they wear are supposed to prevent them from falling out when they do so. Many such harness systems have a fatal flaw, however. They do not open easily in an emergency. Instead, passengers must use a cutting tool, stored in a pouch attached to the harness, to cut themselves free.

The harness systems involved in the March crash had two main components: a manufacturer-installed restraint system and an off-the-shelf nylon harness installed later that attached to the restraint system by means of a locking carabiner and lanyard at each passenger's back. Subsequent to this deadly crash, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a recommendation marked "urgent" to the Federal Aviation Administration calling for a ban of any commercial flight harness system that does not provide an easy-release mechanism passengers can use in an emergency.

While the FAA ordered the suspension of all "open-door" flights whose harness systems have "restraints that cannot be released quickly in an emergency," the chairman of the NTSB stated that "the FAA has not outlined how or when they plan to take action" and that "definitive action needs to be taken."

With "open-door" helicopter flights in a de facto state of limbo, your best strategy likely is to forego the pleasures of such a flight until all safety harnesses are in fact safe. This is general educational information only and not intended to provide legal advice.

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