In my last article we discussed the mid-air collision of a Eurocopter AS350BA with a Piper 32R-300 over the Hudson River Exclusion Area that claimed the lives of nine people. Although the NTSB investigation is still ongoing, there has been progress in making the skies over New York City safer.
Let me report first of all, that there has been much speculation on what happened and what to do about it. Some pilots claim this mishap was inevitable and that change is definitely needed with the airspace management in that area.
As a result of this mishap, hearings were held in September by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Aviation Subcommittee regarding the Hudson River airspace area and management of uncontrolled airspace corridors. HAI’s president Matt Zuccaro testified before the committee to his activities as a member of the recently convened FAA New York Airspace Task Force. Zuccaro stated that making mandatory the existing voluntary practices, which have been in used for safety over the last 26 years, would eliminate any ambiguity, and would standardize procedures within the airspace.
I support Zaccaro and the FAA’s recommendation to standardize procedures in the New York exclusion area. This would include making the practices currently used mandatory, establishing two tiers of airspace to enhance separation on transitioning aircraft, standardizing procedures for fixed-wing aircraft entering the Hudson River exclusion area, and finally to standardize the three aeronautical maps which relate to this airspace, as well as the reallocation of the available Unicom frequencies utilized at New York City heliports, which is believed will reduce frequency congestion and enhance communication capability.
Nov. 19, 2009 marked the first day for the new traffic pattern regulations, created by the FAA, aimed to separate helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft passing through the area (See chart above). Local aircraft will be restricted to altitudes of 1,000 feet or less. Aircraft passing through will operate between 1,000 feet and 1,300 feet. Speeds within the corridor will also be restricted.
Why does it always take a mishap to initiate actions to make general aviation more safe? Unfortunately, many of us in the aviation field are satisfied by the way things are right now and don’t worry about changing anything until we have a fatality. As a U.S. Army Aviation accident investigator, I used to say that the “notes, cautions, and warnings in the operators manual were written in blood”. Once again, we are talking about training and risk management. I understand that not everything we do can be changed but this issue regarding the airspace in the New York exclusion area is not new. Many helicopter pilots who fly in that area have been complaining about the congestion for years. As we wait for the findings of the investigation to be released, I am very glad to see that politics did not get in the way of safety.