Another former passenger, Reece Guy, a personal trainer from England, recalled a short safety briefing before the flight he took last year.
“You listen once, but you’re into the excitement, aren’t you?” Mr. Guy said in an interview Monday. “You’re in the moment and you might not fully listen to the safety briefing.” But he remembered the harness.
“I am pretty sure there was a knife attached to the harness, and in an emergency, they said you’d have to tear the knife out of the pocket, reach round to the back and just cut it,” he said of the line tethering each passenger to the cabin. “You’d just have to reach for the knife — it was pretty simple, the design — reach around and put the knife over the strap and just give it a good tug and it would cut through.”
The setup made Mr. Guy feel more secure in the air, he said. “A buckle makes you feel a bit unsafe, so knowing you had that extra strap behind made you feel safe, that it did have to be cut with a knife,” he said. “It’s not every day you expect a helicopter going down.”
What sounds simple in Mr. Guy’s recollection of his training likely became unimaginably complicated after the crash below the water.
“You’re upside down in the water, you’re cold, you’re in something you’re not used to taking off,” said Hugh Teel, general manager of Survival Systems USA, which trains pilots in emergency landings. “Your instinct works against you. Your instinct is to get your head high. If you’re flipped over, your orientation to the aircraft is off. Sight goes away. We train so that when you go to egress, you use tactile sense.”
The harnesses are standard in the lucrative world of adventurous, amateur photographers who pay hundreds of dollars for several minutes in a “doors-off” helicopter high above the Manhattan skyline, a line attaching their harnesses to the aircraft long enough to allow them to lean out. Passengers return from the flights breathless with praise — “So INCREDIBLE I did it TWICE!” one reviewer wrote — and flush with new selfies, including “the shoe picture,” showing the world beneath feet dangling outside the helicopter.
“The truth is, this is one of the most incredible experiences of your life, flying in a helicopter over New York City,” said Vincent Laforet, an aviation photographer and former staff member of The New York Times. “It’s the perfect platform. It’s got the perfect power and perfect maneuverability to do the types of moves one would do with aerial photography.”
Mr. Laforet said he routinely flies with his assistant, so that neither would ever be alone in the event of a crash, and they could free one another from the harnesses. Doing so alone is “extremely difficult, if you’re trained,” he said. The blade in the harness is a folded device with a handle curved in a loop. “Directly where your heart is,” Mr. Laforet said. “My procedure is to pull where my heart is and grab a hook and start slashing,” he said. “I’ve never had faith in that working. That’s why I’ve had an assistant with me for 12 years.”
John Kjekstad, president and director of operations for Helicopter Flight Services, Inc., in Linden, N.J., said he would not allow his company’s fleet to be used for doors-off photography requiring harnesses.
“It’s very tempting,” he said. “It’s a big business. There’s a lot of money in it. But I don’t think I could sleep well at night.”
Mr. Kjekstad said the harness was too difficult for passengers to get free of in an emergency. “If you go into the river, and you flip over, unless you’re a Navy SEAL and you’ve trained for this, getting that harness released is more or less impossible,” he said. His passengers wear lap belts that can be unfastened more easily in the water.
“They’ll be scared,” he said, “but they’ll be alive.”
Even after the fatal crash, the passenger from last year, Mr. Guy, spoke wistfully when he recalled his flight.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I think it was the fear of having the doors off and just flying over the city.”