The helicopter that slammed into the roof of a Manhattan high-rise building on Monday was apparently captured on video minutes earlier flying erratically, and investigators are trying to determine whether the pilot should have taken off in the decaying weather.
The sole occupant, pilot Tim McCormack, who was killed when the helicopter hit 787 Seventh Avenue at 1:40 p.m. Monday in fog and rain, wasn’t licensed to fly in low-visibility conditions.
“That’s something that we’re looking into,” Doug Brazy, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a briefing in New York on Tuesday. “It’s certainly one of the most interested concerns we have is gathering as much information about the weather. Should the helicopter have been flying? We don’t know yet.”
A video recorded by a bystander and posted on social media shows a copter shortly after taking off from the East 34th Street heliport making abrupt maneuvers, including a dive, before flying into the mist and disappearing.
Brazy said investigators believe that the video showed McCormack’s flight, but “it’s something that I still have to confirm.”
The crash caused mayhem in midtown Manhattan as occupants of the building, which is between West 51st and West 52nd Streets, streamed down to the street and fire and police units arrived. It also heightened the ongoing debate over whether helicopters should be operating so close to heavily populated areas of the city.
McCormack was certified to fly helicopters commercially and as an instructor, but wasn’t rated to fly on instruments, according to Federal Aviation Administration records. As a result, he was not permitted to fly into clouds or other low-visibility conditions.
Pilots like McCormack are supposed to have three miles of visibility across the ground to take off, according to U.S. flight rules.
The helicopter was owned by a corporation linked to New York real estate investment firm American Continental Properties LLC and was used by Daniele Bodini, chairman emeritus of the firm. He was not aboard the craft at the time of the accident.
Brazy offered few answers about why the helicopter was flying in a zone over New York where private helicopters typically aren’t allowed. McCormack didn’t contact FAA air-traffic controllers and wasn’t required to do so as long as he stayed in airspace reserved for helicopters at low altitudes over the East River.
“We think his route of flight did not go as planned and he may have ventured into airspace requiring that he contact air traffic control,” the investigator said. “But at the moment, we don’t have any records of him doing so.”
Brazy appealed to any witnesses or people with other video of the event to contact the NTSB.
The NTSB is trying to verify reports that McCormack reported he was having flight problems on the radio during the flight, Brazy said.
“We’ve got some information that says the pilot may have tried to make radio calls near the end of flight,” he said. “We’re trying to confirm that now. We’re trying to find out if it’s recorded.”
The pilot radioed the East 34th Street heliport to report an unspecified issue and said he wanted to return to land, said a person familiar with preliminary data on the accident who asked not to be named.
The helicopter had flown from Westchester County, carrying a passenger to the city on Monday morning. Investigators have interviewed the passenger and the preliminary indications are that the flight was routine, Brazy said. The passenger wasn’t identified.
While the helicopter didn’t have the type of crash-proof recorders mandated for airliners, other devices on board might have contained data that could help investigators. Brazy said crews are examining the wreckage in search of those devices.
Removing the wreckage from the building’s roof will be “very challenging” and could require that pieces be moved down stairways, he added.
With assistance from Ryan Beene.
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