The helicopter that plunged into the East River, killing all five passengers aboard, may have gone down because of an errant strap on a bag, a high-ranking police source told The Post.
“The pilot indicated that at one point he thought an emergency switch, a cutoff valve … had been inadvertently switched off,” the official said.
“He did make a statement that he believes a bag or a strap of a bag might have touched a fuel control switch,” the source said, adding that the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating.
The craft was full of people with cameras wanting to capture the city at dusk.
The pilot, Richard Vance, 33, who has been flying for nine years, told investigators that “he experienced engine trouble,” a police source said.
“He didn’t want to set it down in Central Park so he headed to the river,” the source said.
That decision might have been fateful, according to longtime flight instructor and helicopter pilot Cliff Browne, who has over 2,000 hours of flight time in choppers.
Based on the video he saw of the accident, Browne said the pilot was performing what is known as an emergency autorotation maneuver on the Eurocopter AS350.
“A helicopter has a glide ratio just like an airplane, but it’s minimal,” Browne told The Post in explaining what happens if a chopper loses engine power.
“The air rushes through from below and powers the rotors, which are freewheeling,” he explained. “You use that energy at the end to flare and settle down.”
Browne said the incident would have been survivable because the helicopter was probably only traveling between 5 to 10 mph when it hit the water.
“The guy actually did it perfectly, but it turned over, and they couldn’t get out and they drowned,” Browne said.
He said fuel shut-off switches are used to cut the fuel flow to the engine, something that a pilot can do to minimize the chance of a fire when landing during an emergency.
Browne said he has not flown a Eurocopter AS350, but that in the Bell 206 choppers he’s flown, the switch is located overhead and has a safety feature that prevents accidental activation.
“In any case, there is little time once the engine quits,” he said. “If the fuel shuts off at low altitude, I doubt he’d have time to try a restart.”
A team of 14 officials from the National Transportation Safety Board were set to hit the city to conduct the investigation.
Vance is the sole survivor of the accident, which occurred about 7 p.m. Sunday off the northern tip of Roosevelt Island. He managed to free himself from the sinking aircraft, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said earlier.
He was taken to a hospital for observation and has been released, officials said.
“One of the most difficult parts of the rescue were that five people were tightly harnessed,” Nigro said. “People had to be cut out.”
The chopper, a 2013 model Eurocopter AS350, was a private charter commissioned for a photo shoot, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill told reporters.
It was owned by New Jersey-based Liberty Helicopters, which claims on its website of being “the largest and most experienced helicopter sightseeing and charter service in the Northeast.”
On Monday, Sen. Chuck Schumer called on the Federal Aviation Administration to suspend Liberty’s operating certificate pending the investigation.
Liberty has been involved in at least two other crashes, according to news accounts, including a mid-air collision with a small plane in August 2009 over the Hudson River that killed nine people.
In July 2007 one of its choppers went down in the Hudson with a pilot and seven passengers aboard, all of whom were rescued, according to Reuters.
“We are focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and on fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB investigations. These agencies have asked us to respect the investigative process by referring all press inquiries to them for any further comment,” Liberty said in a statement Monday.
FlyNYON, a New Jersey company that runs the tours and chartered the helicopters, also touts its safety online.
“We are honored to be recognized by the Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC) for our unwavering commitment to Ground and Flight Safety,” according to the site.
The company cites its “proprietary 8 point Safety Harness System.”
“We go beyond industry safety standards for each person on each and every flight. Our customer experience professionals outfit passengers with safety equipment according to our SHS guidelines,” according to the site.
“The Pilot in Command then performs a final review before takeoff,” according to FlyNYON, which said it received the 2017 Safety Award.