Accident Study: Helicopter in the Water

I have been watching this particular accident for more information since the day I first saw it in the news. In short, a helicopter was giving a routine tour of New York City  when it was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson river. The pilot survived but all 5 passengers drowned.

Source: NTSB

What Happened?

Liberty Helicopters gives tours of New York with the doors removed and passengers riding in harnesses that keep them tethered to the helicopter. This allows them to freely take photographs without falling out. These harnesses played a critical role in the accident.

The problems began when a passenger’s tether(some sources report that it was passenger’s bag) slipped beneath the fuel shutoff lever and pulled on it. The pilot began seeking a place to land as the engine died and did not realize that the shutoff had been pulled.

He considered landing in central park but decided there would be too many people around. Instead, he made his way to the river and inflated the floats designed to allow the helicopter to land on the water.

As he prepared for the landing he realized that the fuel shutoff had been activated and began a restart. The timing was wrong though and the engine would not restart fast enough. He followed the procedure and shut the fuel off again just before impact.

I say “impact” because you can see in the videos of the crash that the helicopter did not land gently at all. This could be because of a poor autorotation, or just because there was not enough energy available to begin with.

After landing the helicopter began rolling to the right and was quickly upside down. This is one of the parts that upset me the most because these floats are designed to keep this from happening. However, a malfunction caused the right side floats to not inflate properly!

As it hung under water the skids were the only thing visible. The pilot was unable to free anybody else and he was picked up by a boat responding to the emergency. A big part of this tragedy was the harness system that held the passengers trapped underwater. The tour company supposedly instructed passengers that they were to use a knife attached to the harness to cut themselves free in an emergency. This obviously was not realistic as nobody was able to do it, including a firefighter who was among those lost.

A Chain of Questions

An accident like this produces more questions than answers because there are so many things that went wrong, and if just one of them had gone right these people would still be alive today.

  • Why was the tether able to get around the fuel shutoff?
  • Why didn’t the pilot realize this had happened?
  • Why didn’t the pilot choose a landing on solid ground?
  • Why was the water landing so rough?
  • Why did the pilot not allow the engine to continue its restart?
  • Why didn’t the floats inflate properly?
  • Why were the passengers unable to free themselves?
  • Why was the pilot unable to free anybody?


There are a number of things that could have changed the outcome. In this case, the biggest part of the accident chain was built into the company’s operation with the tethered harnesses. But if the floats had functioned this would not even be considered.

It is important to reflect on these accidents even if it may be difficult to stomach. As pilots, we have a grave responsibility for the safety of others. This is why everything must be done with seriousness and absolute professionalism.

I pray for all those involved in this terrible tragedy.


IMPORTANT: Please read my disclaimer below about accident studies


This study and all accident studies are not meant to judge anyone, their actions, or their skills as a pilot. I do not claim to know what the pilot did or what he/she was thinking. The purpose of these accident studies is to better understand what causes accidents and how to avoid them. Comments and other points of view are always welcome as long as they are respectful towards everyone involved.