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Authorities Recover More Bodies, Still Searching for Cause of New York City Air Collision

Locations in this article:  New York City, NY

Coast Guard helicopterTwo days after a horrific mid-air collision between a helicopter and a small plane over New York City, divers are still attempting to recover the bodies of two victims as aviation investigators try to answer questions about what happened.

The accident occurred about 1,100 feet over the Hudson River on Saturday when a sightseeing helicopter heading out for an aerial tour of New York was clipped by a Piper Lance plane that had recently taken off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

Both aircraft broke apart on impact and plunged into the river.

The chopper’s pilot and five Italian tourists onboard all perished. Three people on the Piper also died. So far divers have recovered seven of the victims and the majority of the wreckage of the helicopter. Sonar has been used to locate what is believed to be the wreckage of the Piper in about 50 feet of water.

As the recovery effort continues Monday, authorities are questioning what could have caused the collision, which was the worst air disaster in New York since the crash of a passenger jet over Queens in November 2001 that killed 265 people.

Learn more about Air Travel Safety in our Plane Crashes section.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokeswoman Debbie Hersman said investigation could take several months to complete. The agency will examine the incident from all angles, including the wreckage of both aircraft, and witness videos. Neither aircraft had black box recorders.

NTSB logoThe skies over the Hudson River are not monitored by air traffic controllers, and some have gone so far as to say an accident was inevitable. There have been three fatal helicopter accidents in New York City since 1990.

The FAA doesn’t monitor air traffic below 1,100 feet in the congested area above the Hudson, which means that the space is something of a free-for-all. Visual flight rules are required and pilots are supposed to communicate with each other on a common frequency.

Ben Lane, a colleague of the Liberty Helicopters pilot who lost his life in the crash, said that New York area helicopter pilots are diligent about staying in radio contact with each other, but many small plane pilots are not.

A local helicopter pilot with 25 years experience said that the tourist chopper pilots are used to the heavy traffic conditions over the Hudson, but the small private jets can be unfamiliar with the dangers.

Read about the last time a plane went down over the Hudson River with US Airways Pilot Hailed as Hero After Safe Hudson River Landing.

After taking off from Teterboro Airport on Saturday, the pilot at the controls of the Piper was told to change communication frequencies and get in contact with air traffic control at Newark airport. But that never happened and now investigators wonder if that may have caused him to fly unaware into such a busy zone.

However, other pilots say that even with careful planning and lots of radio contact, accidents can still occur. They cited the “blind spot” associated with certain aircraft that can make it difficult to see other others.

Piper Lance For example, the Piper Lance has a low-wing design that makes it hard for pilots to see below them, while helicopters have a hard time seeing above them because of their rotors.

Authorities are also examining the safety record of Liberty’s helicopters, which have been involved in eight previous accidents since 1995—but with no fatalities.

A temporary flight restriction is now in effect for a mile around the crash site, for altitudes up to 1,000 feet. The last time such measures were implemented was in 2006 after a plane carrying Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle crashed into the side of a building on New York’s East Side, killing him and his flight instructor.

Several high-profile city officials, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have called for tighter regulations for flights over the Hudson River.

Just a month before Saturday’s crash, the Department of Transportation criticized the FAA for having lax oversight of the so-called “on demand” flight industry—the sector of aviation that includes small for-hire and sightseeing aircraft such as the doomed Liberty helicopter.

The NTSB estimates that nationwide about two million people take paid “flight-seeing” tours every year. Since 2002, the agency has made 16 recommendations related to safety of this sector of the industry, and the FAA has issued 124 of its own recommendations, but none of them have been implemented so far.

By Karen Elowitt for

Related links: Associated Press, ABC News, New York Daily News, Newsday, New York Times, Daily Mail

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