Why a chopper was flying above Midtown Manhattan

USA TODAY

Published 2:46 PM EDT Jun 11, 2019

Authorities were sifting through the smashed wreckage of a helicopter atop a New York City highrise on Tuesday, investigating Monday's spectacular crash that killed a pilot and briefly triggered fears that terrorism may have again struck in the heart of the nation's biggest city.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators were trying to determine why the Agusta 109E twin engine helicopter was flying in windy, rainy, foggy conditions, why it ventured into restricted airspace and why the pilot chose the roof of a 54-story Midtown building for his ill-fated landing.

Pieces of information were slowly emerging that began to complete the puzzle, and air safety investigator Doug Brazy said a preliminary report could be released in two weeks. A final report could be two years away, he said at a press conference Tuesday.

Brazy was asked about the possible of impact of the weather on the tragedy. 

"Should the helicopter have been flying? I don't know yet," Brazy said.

Why a chopper was flying above Midtown Manhattan

The crash brought chaos to the city, prompting a massive police response and evacuation of the highrise. Pedestrian and vehicular traffic was shut down for hours along a 15-block stretch between 6th Avenue and 8th Avenue in Manhattan.

Within an hour of the afternoon crash, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio were tamping down terrorism concerns. But if not terror, then what?

Who was the pilot?

Tim McCormack, 58, was from the hamlet of Clinton Corners, 90 miles north of the city. He was a volunteer firefighter for a quarter century and had flown executives for American Continental Properties for the past five years.

What happened?

Authorities say McCormack took off from a heliport along the East River at about 1:30 in the afternoon, headed for his home airport in Linden, New Jersey. CNN, citing sources it did not identify, said McCormack told heliport officials that he thought he had a window in the weather for flying. Brazy said McCormack did not need approval to take off.

Within minutes, however, McCormack radioed that he had an unspecified problem and wanted to return to the heliport, a source close to the investigation told Bloomberg news service. The crash, and a brief fire, occurred on the roof of the AXA Equitable Building on 7th Avenue just 11 minutes after takeoff, about one mile from the heliport.

Was the helicopter flying in a restricted area?

A flight restriction in effect since President Donald Trump took office bans aircraft from flying below 3,000 feet and within a 1-mile radius of Trump Tower, just a few blocks from the crash site. Monday’s crash prompted some New York lawmakers, including Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Nydia Velazquez, to propose banning certain “nonessential” helicopter flights over Manhattan. CNN reported that at one point McCormack radioed that he wasn't sure where he was, or could not see very well.

Is there video of the crash?

None has emerged so far. However, dramatic cellphone video shot by a woman walking her dog appears to show the helicopter struggling to fly smoothly on the windy, rainy, foggy day. “Crazy helicopter on the east river,” wrote Wendy Slater, who goes by @thingswendysees, on Instagram. Brazy said he believes the video is in fact the helicopter that crashed, but that the information had not been confirmed.

Was he an experienced pilot?

McCormack was no rookie. The FAA records said he had been certified in 2004 to fly helicopters and single-engine airplanes. He was even certified as a flight instructor last year.

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