One of the main issues for flyers in New York City is simply getting to the airport. During rush hour, the drive from Manhattan to any one of New York’s three airports can exceed an hour. For business travelers, this is valuable time wasted sitting in the back of a car. One solution to this problem was to take travelers to the skies before their flights.
In 1949, New York Airways was founded as a cargo and charter helicopter airline using the Sikorsky S-55 as its main workhorse. On July 9, 1953, the airline became one of the first scheduled passenger helicopter airlines in the United States.
With a headquarters at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, the airline began offering helicopter flights between the major airports in New York. In 1955, a one way fare between LaGuardia and Idlewild Airport, later John F. Kennedy International Airport, cost only $4.50, the equivalent of $41.55 in current dollars.
The airline expanded in the 1950s and 60s adding more and larger helicopters. This led to the introduction of the twin engined Boeing Vertol 107-II Turbocopter in 1962. This would become the backbone of the airline’s fleet for the rest of its history, along with the Sikorsky S-61. The airline also operated the Twin Otter in the early 1970s for some inter-airport services.
Flights to Manhattan began in 1956 to a heliport on 30th Street and the West Side Highway. Four years later, all flights were moved to a new heliport located on the East River at Pier 6. Flights from Manhattan to Idlewild Airport began 6 years later in 1962. By 1964, the airline had 32 flights from Newark to the now-named John F. Kennedy International Airport, with each flight stopping in Manhattan.
In 1965, flights began from the top of the Pan Am Building in Midtown Manhattan – now the MetLife Building – to JFK. Flights were operated in coordination with Pan Am, allowing passengers to check-in for their Pan Am flight at the building as late as 40 minutes before their flight. 23 flights a day were operated between the Pan Am building and JFK Airport. Flights were suspended in 1968 before resuming for a short time in 1977.
The airline struggled to make a profit, despite being helped by a $2.2 million federal subsidiary. Towards the end of its life, the airline struggled with several tragic accidents. In 1977, the landing gear of a helicopter collapsed at the top of Pan Am building killing four people on the roof and another person on the ground as the blades were still spinning. This crash prompted the closure of the heliport on top of the Pan Am building.
In 1979, a flight on departure from Newark Airport experienced a fracture of one of its tail rotor blades. While attempting an emergency landing at the airport, the helicopter’s tail rotor gearbox was torn from the aircraft causing an immediate impact with the ground. Three people were killed and 13 were seriously injured in the crash. The airline stopped flying that day and filed for bankruptcy a month later.
The crash in Newark marked the end of New York Airways. However, their helicopters are still flying. All surviving Boeing Vertol 107-II helicopters are currently operated by Columbia Helicopters. The helicopters are used for a variety of purposes from heli-logging to firefighting and even for films and television. Some still retain their PA registration from the time of New York Airways’ partnership with Pan Am.