The Death and Life of Helicopter Commuting


Imagine commuting 1,000 feet above traffic. 50 years ago, during the golden age of helicopter
travel, you could. Until a tragic accident in 1977 brought that
era to a close. But with new technology on the horizon, a
new age of airborne commuting could be just around the corner. Ever since the first skyscrapers shot upward,
visions of New York City’s future showcased convenient access to the skies. Those visions were realized in 1953, when
a helicopter airline called New York Airways established a schedule of routes carrying
passengers between Manhattan’s riverside heliports and New York City’s airports in a fleet of
repurposed Boeing and Sikorsky military helicopters. For as little as $5, you could hop on one
of their 20-seat shuttles and be at your departure gate within 10 minutes. At its peak, New York Airways served over
a half million passengers a year, with dozens of daily scheduled flights. We always flew past the Statue of Liberty
on our way to Newark to give the passengers a good view of that. It was great, for a young pilot, it was exciting. You see on television overhead pictures of
New York. Well, there you were, right in the middle
of it. It was awesome. As I say this, it’s giving me chills. In the early 1960s, the construction of the
Pan Am skyscraper in the heart of Midtown Manhattan offered an exciting and unprecedented
new expansion for New York Airways. Situated directly above the iconic Grand Central
Terminal, the massive 59-story office complex was a symbolic link between the era of trains
below and the Jet Age above. At the time, Pan Am was the largest and most
famous international airline. To top off their eponymous building, the tower
had a unique modern amenity: a rooftop heliport, for passengers connecting on to Pan Am flights. In 1965, New York Airways partnered with Pan
Am and added the midtown rooftop to its routes. The rooftop helipad became a widely admired
cultural landmark, making its way into Hollywood films such as the 1968 Clint Eastwood thriller,
Coogan’s Bluff. Business trip? You might call it that. Director Ridley Scott has said that landing
on the Pan Am roof was the inspiration for his futuristic sets in his sci-fi epic, Blade
Runner. The Pan Am roof was, rounding it off, it was
pretty close to 900 feet high. It was extremely challenging, especially at
night and in the weather. Probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever
done, except for getting shot at in Vietnam. But I enjoyed it; it was fun. Not everyone was pleased with the new route,
however. The things that bothered us the most were the noise factor and the danger. It was sort of a fun idea: yeah, it’s futuristic. Then when you think about it, do you really want a bus overhead, in populated areas, in Midtown Manhattan? To me, that still doesn’t make sense. The board ended up approving it. I really did become scared that something
was going to happen. A big helicopter bringing people in from New
York’s Kennedy Airport killed five people after landing on the roof of the 59-story
Pan Am Building in the center of town. My boss had asked me to take a quick trip
to Nashville. He suggested, to make it easy, use the helicopter. I went across town, took the elevator up to
the Pan Am Building. After a short time, we started to move up
the escalator and we got about halfway up, when suddenly there was a loud noise and we were showered with little pieces of glass breaking. Everything stopped. And I went up and I saw that the helicopter
had flipped over on its side. The thing that I most remember, I can still
see even today is the one body laying there on the rooftop, and it was cut open in the
torso. It was just overwhelming. Loading passengers with the rotors turning was not one of my favorite things, but apparently the thinking was the cost of putting
on the rotor brake to stop the rotors but still keep the engines running ended up being a maintenance cost that they did not want to deal with. This is the point that the landing gear broke,
on the top part of the strut. It basically just rolled over this way. Four passengers waiting to board were killed
instantly by the projectile rotor blades. One piece of a rotor blade flew off the roof
and smashed into an office window on the side of the Pan Am Building. Another piece fell 60 stories down to the
street, killing a 29-year old woman as she made her way home during the rush hour commute. In the wake of the disaster, the city immediately suspended all service to the Pan Am Building rooftop The NTSB launched an investigation and concluded
that the accident was due to high cycle fatigue propagation. In other words, wear and tear. As for the public image of helicopter travel: It didn’t do the image any good. Consequently, there is no rooftop helicopter
operations in New York City or any places around the country that I know of, maybe a
couple of hospitals or something. Owing to litigation costs, rising fuel prices,
and declining traffic due to its damaged reputation, New York Airways went out of business two
years later. In Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago,
similar helicopter services operated throughout the 1960s and 70s. Financial issues and a series of fatal crashes forced most of these companies out of business as well. Since the demise of New York Airways, other
ventures have attempted to replicate scheduled helicopter service, including a brief attempt
in the late 1980s by Donald Trump. All failed. Despite the decline of scheduled service,
overall traffic surged in the 1980s due to increased private charters for corporate travel
and for tourist sightseeing around Manhattan. Concerns about noise, however, caused a major
backlash, forcing the city to dramatically reduce flights and heliport access in recent
years. As New York City’s population, traffic and
wealth have increased, the demand for reliable, time-saving means of transportation is arguably
higher than ever. A newcomer to the short-distance aviation
market called BLADE, launched in 2013, is harkening back to the golden age of commercial
travel powered by modern ridesharing technology. Before BLADE, it would cost $6000 to fly to
the Hamptons, probably about $3000 to go to the airport. We now fly people to the airport for $195,
we fly people to the Hamptons for $595. It’s still expensive, but we’re now getting
to the point where we’re really almost at ride-sharing, black car pricing. BLADE, like Uber, doesn’t actually own any
of its vehicles. Instead, it contracts with helicopter charter
companies and focuses on providing a consistent, customer-facing experience through a mobile
app. Ultimately, BLADE faces many of the same obstacles
that the industry has faced for years: the high hourly cost of helicopter operations,
and the noise. But there’s a new technology on the horizon
that could mitigate those issues. Five, six years from now is really going to
be the dawn of what we call e-VTOL: electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing rotorcraft. The beauty of these rotorcraft is that they
are quiet, and they are less expensive. BLADE, along with Uber, Larry Page and others,
are betting on e-VTOL technology to introduce a new golden age of airborne commuting. The technology is still very primitive, but
if battery capacity, safety and air traffic obstacles can be overcome, rooftop point to
point transport could become a reality again. Meanwhile, 800 feet above the bustling streets
of Manhattan, the heliport atop the former Pan Am Building remains closed, a 40-year-old
reminder of how an unexpected tragedy can change the course of an industry – and a city
– forever.

100 thoughts on “The Death and Life of Helicopter Commuting

  1. Okay, you can use "ominous sounds" to foreshadow a tragic event, but not so fricken long. It goes from 3:01 to 6:00. Why would more rotors from this Pop-Sci VTOL craft change anything about the danger, when the weather and especially the wind is the real danger?

  2. shiii about 35 mins away in Long Island they started building helicopter pads on rooftops but stopped half way and left it like that ever since in levittown lol. This is prob why though

  3. This is a dream that will end in a nightmare. When you give enough of the wealthy an alternative to the resources we all use (in this case roadways), those resources the rest of us use suffer.

  4. I hope those vertical takeoff buses/ride sharing vehicles are fully operational and popular in my Lifetime

  5. Not similar to anything I watch on YouTube, but glad it randomly came up on my feed lol great video, very interesting.

  6. Just ask Vietnam vets how safe helicopters are. You probably won't see many of them being "whisked" anywhere in them.

  7. Nah I’m good, I will not trust that service. Anything can happen, from company cheap maintenance irresponsibility, to bad weather, to terrorist attacks. Meh thank you but not thank you, please leave it the way it is without flying dangers above my head. Call me chicken if you want, watch: quack quack quack quack (winging) no problem

  8. Quieter air transport can’t come quickly enough. Here in Chelsea we have at least one tourist helicopter trawling back and forth at any given moment during the day.

  9. I'm still skeptical that even with the new generation of electric mega quad copter-like tech that this type of commuting will take off. It's still going to be very noisy. Cities won't allow this. This time with higher noise frequency due to smaller blades and higher RPMs. And these new craft won't be capable of autogyrating to the ground in the event of engine failures. Drop like a rock or will need a balistic parachute.

  10. Probably more people get killed in traffic each day in New York. This accident could not be the real reason. Probably taxi lobby.

  11. $5.00 sounds way to cheap, even for that time period. No wonder they didn't spend enough money on maintenance and then there was an accident.

  12. The fact that it was on the roof didn’t contribute to the accident at all!

    If the passengers were boarding the helicopter at a cornfield in Iowa, the exact same accident would have still happened, and still killed everyone trying to board.

  13. The interest in this is a consequence of our failure to build enough housing close to where people work.

  14. Sikorsky’s helo’s were out dated the day they went into service! If one wants chartered helo’s that is fine, but use the most modern bird available! And modern blades that sound dampening & electric for EVTOL tech!

  15. A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof
    Like a dragonfly on a tomb
    And business men in button downs
    Press into conference rooms

    — Joni Mitchell

  16. This is only taking US stats. World wide commercial scheduled helicopter flights have not proved to be viable due to noise levels, meaning convenient heliports are difficult to locate and expensive as helicopters need lots of maintenance and have poor fuel economy. Poor maintenance has been behind many crashes and was also why, at least in the UK, the Chinook is only permitted for military use. It is also difficult to fly around tall buildings as you get strange and very variable wind directions at landing and takeoff.

    I think those planning such services are letting their optimism overrule their common sense. They really do have to work through and get viable solutions for all of the issues to get a viable service.

  17. It's fascinating how small tragedies of just a few people dying can have a bigger effect on the human psyche than larger tragedies of hundreds dying. After all, how many buses and trains have crashed killing hundreds over the years, but we don't stop using them? But 5 people die on a helicopter landing and it's shut down forever. Sheesh.

  18. What the hell terrorists the hayday of helicopter comuting would have been a way better time to crash into a building or two… Way easier to aim than a passenger jet for sure…

  19. Have flown in many helicopters…don't like them. Don't trust them. Now the sky will be jammed up. So some app. creator can make $$$.

  20. had the company been more focused on providing a better service for the people, and not so focused on the money, maybe the industry actually would’ve grown into something. or maybe there are just too many inevitable problems and rooftop travel will remain an idea of the future (for now)

  21. Why go through the hassles & take the risks? All that air traffic for 500,000 passengers per year when annual Subway ridership in 2018 was 1,727,366,607 (source: http://web.mta.info/nyct/facts/ridership/ ). Forget it. It's dangerous & it's dumb. Yes subways are dangerous but I believe the risks of helicopters and people falling from the sky is a little worse & not worth it until we develop technology to transport a larger fraction of commuters.

  22. Original thoughts for commercial helicopters was to have one in every drive way. Can you imagine that?

  23. Nothing changes stupid over-head. Most all accidents ARE some form of stupid, whether it was maintenance or pilot error. It was and is always avoidable if someone pays attention beyond the money.

  24. Sounds like it’s not feasible anymore because prices would be inflated ;like $100 a ride.

  25. Not surprising that helicopter crashed. They looked like tuna cans. Technology has come along way in rotor technology. I'm betting crashes would be rare.

  26. This video looked like a 9th grader made it for his homework assignment. Nothing but cliches in the narration and the editing.

  27. Tragic as that accident was, many more people die every day in car accidents, yet we haven't ended automobiles. There are bus accidents too, we still have those. Nothing in life is 100% safe, and while what happened is horrible, it also seems foolish to completely end a promising use of transportation technology because of it. Maybe it's the optics of it or something. I sure would love to have the option though. 42 years later…think of how many more places would have helicopter transport which is actually affordable, and how extensive it would be in the big, big cities. A lost opportunity after a decade of presumably safe operation, all because of one accident. Talk about giving up! Seems like this would have been the opportunity to change some designs and make it safer.

  28. One incident and heli rides are banned.
    So many mass shootings and guns aren't.
    US of A for you, ladies & gentleman 🤷‍♂️

  29. 5 from 500k passengers? Maybe people died eaten by shark, wins a greater number, *if you compare apple to pizza.

  30. New Yorkers hate the chopping sound of the helicopters overhead. This should be illegal. It ruins public spaces, and parks, with horrific noise.

  31. Another case where we traded freedom for public safety. What do we have now? Very low to NO helicopter commute, and a hell lot more than 5 deaths in car accidents because now everybody needs a car.

  32. The "elites" will NOT be able to escape the consequences of their genocidal immigration scheme. Their electric "drones" will be shot out of the sky, and any survivors will be strung up and skinned alive to the cheers of the masses below. #SawNothingOfficer

  33. Helicopter pilot as just been killed today in a accident in new York it crashed landed on a high-rise apartment block!it's a good idea to have quiter machines if it was to be come reality!I think we look towards the future to much.we need to considerate on today. making flight even more safer!look at air travel today airplanes are crashing more because pilots can't over ride the new technology of computers and datea software.we need pilots to be able to fly manually as well.to over ride the new technology.i think the future of flight is dead in the water before it's ever gets off the ground.

  34. small airships with helium powered lift is much quieter than a rotor blade aircraft will ever be and safer

  35. Nothing happened, this is all bs. Where's the footage of the helicopter crashing into the building? Just actors portrayed as civilians.

  36. A well tempered mini documentary. There are alot of gems within. Chopper crashes….. blimps… air balloon disaster!. There's alot about the future of the drone in this video. And flying cars therefore driverless cars.. The lawyers speak volumes. Try Space travel. Interesting article.

  37. this was way before my time but man I wish commuter helicopters and heliports still existed! way more fun and exciting than being stuck in traffic in your car or on a crowded bus. I live in Chicago and while L trains are cool in their own ways helicopter rides would be way more awesome!!!

  38. In the VERY early 1970s, my mom and I landed by jet in JFK, and had either missed our connecting flight to our final destination due to delay, or else it was unexpectedly canceled — I can’t remember which, I was very very young and barely verbal — so my grandmom, who’d flown the first leg of that flight with us for fun, and who was a pretty seasoned traveler and handy in these situations, quickly booked my mom and I a different flight home… but from out of LaGuardia, across the city, and leaving in under an hour! So how did we get from JFK to LaGuardia? (Or maybe it was vice-versa, I again don’t remember super clearly.) BY GIANT HELICOPTER!! And this video talks a lot about how people under the flight path of those helicopters found them noisy, but you know what the video neglects to mention? HOW CRAZY NOISY IT WAS TO RIDE INSIDE OF ONE OF THOSE THINGS!! Again, I was really young at the time, so I don’t remember everything today (nor did I know then what a treat I was getting, riding in a helicopter), but here’s what burned itself deeply into my memory: 1) the seats were a dark blue sort of cloth, it was rough and had burls but was kinda nice, 2) it was surprisingly crowded, but as comfy as one of the smaller DC aircraft, and 3) once the rotors roared into action, it was so suddenly and OVERWHELMINGLY noisy, I cried literally the whole length of the ride: the thing shook and tilted like a seesaw (to top things off, I think we were in the tail-end of a hurricane, no kidding), and I could barely hear myself shriek over the rotors, my little self could hardly stand it… but I think it was fortunately less than a 15-minute ride, so the other poor passengers didn’t have to suffer my wailing for too long. But yeah, those things were NOISY. Is all.

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