NEW YORK — The pilot killed Monday when his helicopter slammed into the roof of a New York City skyscraper was not authorized to fly in limited visibility, according to his pilot certification, raising questions about why he took off in fog and steady rain.
Tim McCormack, 58, was only certified to fly under regulations known as visual flight rules, which require generally good weather and clear conditions, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The rules require at least 3 miles of visibility and that the sky is clear of clouds for daytime flights. The visibility at the time of Monday’s crash was about 1¼ miles at nearby Central Park, with low clouds blanketing the skyline.
McCormack was not certified to use instruments to help fly through cloudy or bad weather, said the FAA.
The crash in the tightly controlled airspace of midtown Manhattan shook the 750-foot AXA Equitable building, obliterated the Agusta A109E helicopter, sparked a fire, and forced office workers to flee.
It briefly triggered memories of 9/11 and fears of a terrorist attack, but authorities said there is no indication the crash was deliberate.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents the area where McCormack crashed, said it's "past time" for the FAA to ban "unnecessary helicopters" from the city's skies.
Fellow Democrat Rep. Nydia Velazquez said she wants tourist flights grounded. Last year, five passengers were killed when a sightseeing helicopter plunged into the East River .
“The risks to New Yorkers are just too high,” Maloney said.
At a National Transportation Safety Board briefing Tuesday, air safety investigator Doug Brazy said that McCormack had arrived at a heliport on New York City’s East River after a trip carrying one passenger from nearby Westchester County.
The passenger told investigators there was nothing out of the ordinary about the 15-minute flight, Brazy said.
McCormack waited at the heliport for about two hours and reviewed the weather before taking off on what was supposed to be a trip to helicopter’s home airport in Linden, N.J., Brazy said.
That trip would have taken the helicopter south, over the city's harbor and past the Statue of Liberty.
Investigators were reviewing video posted on social media Monday afternoon showing a helicopter that investigators believe is the doomed chopper pausing and hovering a short distance south of the heliport, then turning and making an erratic flight back north through rain and clouds.
The helicopter hit the Manhattan tower about 11 minutes after taking off, in an area where flights aren't supposed to take place.
A flight restriction in effect since President Donald Trump took office prohibits aircraft from flying below 3,000 feet within a 1-mile radius of Trump Tower, only a few blocks from the crash site.
Helicopters going in and out of the heliport, on East 34th Street, are allowed to fly in the restricted area only if they have permission and are in constant communication with air traffic control.
Brazy said the pilot never made such a request and didn't contact air traffic control, although investigators were trying to verify reports that McCormack had made radio calls to someone just before the crash. Brazy said McCormack's planned route to Linden wouldn't have required him to contact air traffic control.
Asked if the weather may have played a factor, Brazy said "it is certainly one of the most interesting concerns we have."
"Should the helicopter have been flying? I do not know yet," he said.
Brazy said the helicopter was not equipped with a flight data recorder or a cockpit voice recorder.
In New York City, helicopters giving tourists a whirlybird's eye view of landmarks account for the majority of take offs. Those flights were cut in half to about 30,000 a year under a 2016 deal between operators and the city, which runs two of Manhattan's three commercial heliports.
But a new Uber service is threatening to crowd the skies once more.
The ride-hailing service said last week it would start helicoptering passengers between Manhattan and Kennedy Airport at $200 a ride, drawing scrutiny from Velazquez and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Democrat, who asked: "Is that really necessary? Is it safe?"
John Dellaportas, the president of the Stop the Chop advocacy group, said only public safety and medical flights should be allowed.
"It's a bit like Groundhog Day that every time there's a deadly crash, politicians say great things and then everybody goes back to their business," said Dellaportas, a lawyer.
Sam Goldstein, a spokesman for New York’s tourist helicopter industry, said operators “have already regulated themselves into a position where they’re safe, predictable and a good neighbor.”
McCormack was a former fire chief in upstate Clinton Corners, N.Y. With 15 years of experience flying helicopters and single-engine airplanes, he was certified as a flight instructor last year, according to FAA records.
The East Clinton Volunteer Fire Department posted on Facebook that McCormack's "technical knowledge and ability to command an emergency were exceptional."
Linden airport director Paul Dudley described McCormack as "a highly seasoned" and "very well regarded" pilot.
Brazy said a salvage crew expected to start removing the wreckage from the roof by Tuesday evening, possibly by taking pieces down the stairs and elevator. It will be moved to a secure location for further examination, he said.
"The location — within the city and on top of the roof of a building — is probably the biggest challenge in the investigation," Brazy said.