Peter recently spoke with pilot Patrick Smith, who writes the “Ask the Pilot” column for Salon.com, about the deadly mid-air collision over the Hudson River in New York between a sightseeing helicopter and a small, single-engine plane.
The story continues to develop in the wake of the investigation. As investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continue to sift through wreckage and look for clues, a number of new—and frightening—stories are emerging.
One involves whether or not the controller handling the private plane flight out of Teterboro airport in New Jersey was paying attention to that flight, or making a phone call to his girlfriend at the time he should have been alerting the pilot to a possible collision course showing on his screen.
Since then, the NTSB stated that the tour helicopter wasn’t on the controller’s radar screen until seven seconds after handing off control of the small aircraft to the Newark air control tower.
While the controller and his supervisor have been placed on leave pending the results of the investigation, the collision investigation needs to answer more questions—about controlled airspace, highways in the sky, and how often pilots communicate to each other under the visual flight rules in congested airspace.
Peter Greenberg (PG): I have to play devil’s advocate—and I’m asking you not as the commercial pilot that you are, but as a pilot—let’s go back and look at the story of the Yankees pitcher, Cory Lidle. That plane also took off from Teterboro, went down the Hudson River, around the Statue of Liberty, went up the East River, tried to make that turn and wound up crashing into a high-rise apartment building. You would think at that point—in terms of security, not just safety concerns—they would have closed off that airspace to private aircraft.
NYC Airport News previously on PeterGreenberg.com:
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- Miracle on the Hudson: The Audio Tapes
Patrick Smith (PS): They did make some procedural changes after that incident in 2006, when the pilot and his companion were killed. But let’s circle the wagon a bit. This most recent accident occurred in one of the two famous so-called “VFR corridors” that bracket the island of Manhattan.
There’s one on the Hudson River side and one on the East River side, and they’re very popular with recreational fliers, helicopters and other small aircraft. About 50,000 planes and helicopters go up and down these corridors every year. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the flights operate exclusively under VFR—visual flight rules, aka “see and be seen.”
This is not the environment in which commercial airlines operate, where they’re relying on old-fashioned “see and avoid” tactics to steer clear of each other. I don’t think the media has emphasized this enough, leading people to think that their flights out of Newark, LaGuardia or JFK are subject to the same level of hazard. VFR flying isn’t dangerous, but I do think it’s best left to low-flying, lower-performance aircraft.
PG: But it gets into security. They just reopened the Statue of Liberty for the first time in eight years, claiming that it’s secure enough to visit. But you have all that small traffic down there. A pilot could easily crashed, or fly directly or intentionally, into the Statue of Liberty.
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PS: That’s true, but that’s always going to be true. I think there’s a certain futility to trying to secure the very air above our heads. I think there’s always going to be some level of risk, but if we’re going to live in a free country, that’s just something we’re going to have to accept.
PG: So what happens now? I look back at the days of the ELT, which stands for the “emergency locator transmitter.” It took the FAA years to require private pilots to install them in the tails of all small planes so that if there is an accident or you crash, it would send out a beacon to your exact location. But when the FAA enacted that policy, there was no provision that required maintenance of ELTs, so half of the batteries in those planes didn’t work anyway. There is technology now for collision avoidance in smaller aircraft, but the price of entry is about $15,000 a plane, right?
PS: Yeah, it’s very expensive and not practical for this type of flying. VFR flying is generally very safe, and pilots do a pretty good job of self-managing these areas like this corridor. It does have a higher level of risk than commercial flying, but it’s something we’d had for decades and on the whole is very safe. You can’t change it without changing some deep, systemic foundation of our air system. That’s not fair to very competent and skilled leisure and private fliers out there.
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PG: Is there a way to do a different kind of separation in altitude, saying helicopters are assigned one altitude, and private planes are assigned another altitude?
PS: There are certain measures that could be implemented here. Without doing something just for the sake of doing something, we could maybe restrict the number of planes allowed to go up and down the river over a period of time. For example, over the weekends, traffic really swells up and down the corridor with leisure fliers. Maybe that needs to be restricted; maybe there needs to be a requirement to maintain at least radio contact with air traffic control under certain times of day, certain traffic conditions. There are different ways to go at this without closing the corridor.
PG: If someone were to ask me tomorrow if I would like to take a sightseeing tour on a helicopter, I’m on.
PS: When I was a regional pilot back in the early 1990s, I would sometimes follow the corridor when flying out of Newark. I would fly at a slightly higher altitude and coordinate it with air traffic control, and the view going up the Hudson in Manhattan is maybe the most spectacular view to be seen from an airplane in the world.
PG: Just ask Captain Sullenberger.
PS: I don’t know if he was really enjoying the scenery so much!
PG: Well, I had to do it!
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