Doors-off helicopter tours: Four things every operator should think about

Pilot standing in front of an open helicopter door while another man faces a woman who is climbing out of the helicopter

Do it for the ‘gram. That’s the world’s mantra these days: living for the Instagram photo instead of the experience itself. But now that pictures are seemingly worth a thousand likes, how far will people go to capture that double-tap-worthy shot? Apparently, pretty far, to the extent of leaning out of a door-less helicopter that’s flying as high as 2,000 feet over a Hawaiian waterfall or city skyline.

The technical, and quite literal aviation term for these adventures is doors-off helicopter tours. And while they offer passengers a thrilling way to see key landmarks, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has concerns about the safety of these flights, and in particular, the harnesses used to keep passengers buckled in.

If you’re like me — an incredibly risk-averse person who always buckles her seatbelt (even in a cab), you’d think that being tightly harnessed in a helicopter without doors would be a good thing. Unfortunately, that’s the catch-22 of these seemingly safe flights. The same harnesses meant to keep passengers inside can paradoxically trap them during an emergency landing. That’s what happened in March when a flight made an emergency landing in New York City’s East River and claimed the lives of five passengers who were ensnared by their harnesses. While knives were provided in case of such an emergency, it’s unlikely that your average citizen signing up for a fun excursion is adequately prepared to MacGyver their way out of a helicopter submersed in water.

Thus, it’s no surprise that this crash prompted the FAA to issue a new mandate that requires all doors-off operators use FAA-approved harnesses. But even with the new guidance, doors-off operators are left wondering: is the photo credit worth the risk?

Here are four things they should consider:

  1. Are your harnesses FAA-approved? Under the new mandate, all passenger-carrying, doors-off operators must use FAA-approved supplemental restraint systems. And to clarify, a FAA-approved restraint system cannot require a knife, or similar tool, to be the only method of removal, nor can another person be required for assistance — they must be quick-release harnesses. If you don’t have them, get them, and if you’re not sure if yours meet those standards, send them to the FAA for review.
  2. Do your pilots have the right experience? One of the top three causes of helicopter crashes is pilot error, and that’s with the doors on. So when it comes to door-off choppers, where the risks are greater, particularly when it comes to wind exposure, you’ll want a pilot with experience that goes beyond hours and type-rating. What’s the route being flown? Is it consistent, or are there unpredictable obstacles or weather elements that could come into play? Are the pilots properly vetted for fatigue and mental stability? How often has the pilot been trained for underwater escape? My point being: the more creative and hands-on the pilot training, the better.
  3. Is your equipment in good condition? How’s the quality of the fleet itself? Have crash-resistant fuel tanks been installed? While these kinds of tanks have been FAA-mandated since 1994, there’s some fine print to that rule that no one should overlook. The mandate applies to all helicopters certified after 1994, but doesn’t require the tanks be installed on any helicopters certified prior to that. And if you think all tourism helicopters flying around out there are brand-spanking new, you’re brand-spanking wrong. Not to mention, a type certificate could have been obtained decades ago even if the helicopter was manufactured recently. Thus, the certification year is a fundamental point when determining the condition of the fuel tank. Because your harness could be made out of dental floss and it wouldn’t make a difference when a post-crash fire is involved—the flames significantly decrease the rate of anyone surviving, regardless of their ability to escape.
  4. Is it really a risk worth taking? While taking these measures can help increase the safety of doors-off flights, not offering these kinds of helicopter tours is, of course, the best way to prevent any unwanted outcomes.

In short, keep your doors on. And if you’re afraid of losing customers due to the glare a window may create in their photos, sell professional photos in the gift shop after the flight. Better yet, include the professional photos in the price package upfront — an added bonus. While the customers may not have taken the photos themselves, I’m sure they’ll have no qualms posting them as such. Plus, they’ll be able to live in the moment and enjoy the view with their own two eyes.


Bridget Donley headshotBridget Donley is an Assistant Vice President on the Aerospace team at Willis Towers Watson.

Categories: Casualty, Claim & Risk Control, Insurance and Risk Management, Risk Culture | Tags: , , ,

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