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Helicopter pilot killed in NYC crash Monday was not licensed to fly in poor weather

The pilot killed Monday when his helicopter crash-landed on 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.

Chopper went down in foggy, rainy conditions with poor visibility

A New York City Medical Examiner's vehicle is seen outside 787 7th Avenue in midtown Manhattan one day after a helicopter crashed on the building's roof. The FAA says the pilot who died was not licensed to fly in bad weather. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The pilot killed Monday when his helicopter crash-landed on 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 (FAA).

The rules require at least 4.8 kilometres of visibility and that aircraft steer clear of clouds for daytime flights. The visibility at the time of Monday's crash was about two kilometres at nearby Central Park, with low clouds blanketing the skyline.

The building the chopper crashed onto was obscured by fog and there was heavy rain at the time. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The crash in the tightly controlled airspace of midtown Manhattan shook the 229-metre 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.

The crash — the second in Manhattan in a month — also led to renewed calls for restricting helicopter flights over the city.

U.S. 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, 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.

Should the helicopter have been flying? I do not know yet.- Doug Brazy, air safety investigator

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 harbour and past the Statue of Liberty.

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 U.S. President Donald Trump took office prohibits aircraft from flying below 914 metres within a 1.6-kilometre radius of Trump Tower, only a few blocks from the crash site.

This photo released by the New York City Fire Department shows the helicopter on the roof of the AXA Equitable building. (FDNY/Associated Press)

Helicopters going in and out of the heliport on Manhattan's East Side are only allowed to fly in the restricted area if they have permission and are communicating with air traffic control at LaGuardia Airport.

Brazy said the pilot never made such a request and didn't contact air traffic control.

It's unclear if authorities were aware before the crash that the helicopter had entered restricted air space.

"Those questions are part of our investigation," safety board spokesperson Terry Williams said.

Brazy said McCormack's planned route to Linden wouldn't have required him to contact air traffic control. The helicopter was not equipped with a flight data recorder or a cockpit voice recorder, he said.

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.

Concerns about Uber in the air

The crashed helicopter was owned through a real estate firm and used for "executive travel," authorities said.

In New York City, helicopters giving tourists a whirlybird's eye view of landmarks account for the majority of takeoffs. 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?"

A 'highly seasoned' pilot

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 Tuesday to a secure location, possibly by taking pieces down the stairs and elevator.

"The location — within the city and on top of the roof of a building — is probably the biggest challenge in the investigation," Brazy said.