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On This Day: Helicopter Accident Atop Manhattan Building Kills 5

Written By Isabel Cowles
Last updated: February 15, 2023

On May 16, 1977, the turning blades of a collapsed helicopter sliced into several passengers waiting to board the aircraft atop Manhattan’s Pan Am Building.

Helicopter Crash Kills Five and Injures 13

On Friday, May 16, 1977, a helicopter accident killed five people and wounded 13 at the Pan Am Building (now MetLife’s Manhattan headquarters).

Passengers had paid $25 to ride the 30-seat Sikorsky S-61 chopper from midtown Manhattan to Kennedy International Airport. The flight was to last 10 minutes.

Several passengers had already boarded the aircraft and a dozen stood waiting when a landing-gear attachment malfunctioned. The helicopter began to tilt, its blades cutting into some of the passengers in line.

Four people waiting in line to board were killed. Parts of the helicopter rotors ricocheted from the roof of the building, soaring nearly two blocks and killing a pedestrian on the corner of 43rd street and Madison Avenue. An additional 13 people were injured.

A witness described the terrible scene in a New York Times article: “There was nothing but screaming and metal glass flying.” Another bystander reported, “Everyone threw themselves on the floor. There was blood all over everyone.”

Many questioned the safety of skyscraper landing pads in Manhattan. The Pan Am Building had ceased using the heliport in 1968 because it wasn’t profitable, but had resumed helicopter service on Feb. 1, 1977—just three and a half months before the crash.

Background: Accident caused by “metal fatigue.”

Sources in this Story

  • Time: Whirling Death on a Rooftop
  • Plane Crash Info: Accident Details
  • Wired New York (The New York Times): 5 Killed As Copter On Pan Am Building Throws Rotor Blade (PDF)
  • Tom Fletcher’s New York Architecture: Met Life Building
  • U.S. Department of Labor: Fatal Occupational Injuries Involving Helicopters, 1995-2002
  • The BBC: Surviving a Helicopter Crash

Time magazine reports that the incident was caused by “metal fatigue,” which prevented the landing gear from properly supporting the aircraft.

According to The New York Times, Mayor Abraham Beame required the helicopter company to suspend service after the crash. Mayor Beame stated, “I have ordered the Transportation Administrator to revoke the permit until the Federal Aviation Administration investigates and makes the necessary report.”

The Pan Am Building, now the MetLife Building, often provoked controversy for its scale and design. Tom Fletcher’s New York Architecture explores the skyscraper’s complex architectural history, such as the tragic story of the helipad, as well as the various disputes concerning the building’s design, air rights and many renovations.

Related Topic: The risks of helicopters and how to survive them

More than three decades after the Pan Am Building crash, helicopters remain one of the most dangerous aircrafts.

An analysis by the U.S. Department of Labor examines the injuries that have occurred by those working on or near helicopters and notes that “Over the 8-year period from 1995 to 2002, 459 workers were killed on the job in helicopter-related incidents.”

In a video, the BBC shows how the Royal Navy teaches its members to survive when a helicopter crashes at sea, submersing them in a pool of water in a simulated helicopter crash.

Use “On This Day” in your classroom. Download a printable student worksheet.

Charles Eames

Isabel was a writer for findingDulcinea from spring 2007 until March 2009. Before joining the team, Isabel worked as a freelance editor for Alfred A. Knopf and harvested heirloom tomatoes from an organic farm. Isabel has a B.A. in Comparative Literature and Cinema Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Read TASTE, Isabel’s personal blog about her cooking-related trials and errors.

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