On a bright and sunny day over the skies of the Hudson River adjacent to the Manhattan Skyline in New York City, two aircraft collided and fell into the river on August 8, killing nine people. The airplane was a Piper 32 and the helicopter was a Eurocopter AS350. Anyone who has flown in this area knows the Hudson River and East River Exclusion areas in and around New York City are probably the most congested in the country. There are four major airports — Newark, LaGuardia, Kennedy, and Teteboro — all vectoring traffic in and around that area. With this high volume of traffic, is the see and avoid concept enough to keep the skies over New York safe?
While the investigation continues at the time of this article, there is much speculation about who was at fault and what we can do about it. What is known is that the exclusion areas are congested, very congested. Let’s look at what the area charts indicate about these areas. The Terminal Air Chart (TAC) states that there is a high density of uncontrolled fixed-wing and helicopter traffic on the Hudson and East Rivers Class B Exclusions. All aircraft self-announce on 123.075 on the East River and 123.05 on the Hudson River.
The Helicopter Route Chart states that all aircraft are requested to not exceed 140 knots of airspeed. It also recommends turning on landing light, position lights, and anti-collision light and to self-announce on frequency 123.05 for the Hudson exclusion and 123.075 for the East River exclusion. These recommendations do not relieve pilots of compliance with applicable FAA regulations including minimum safe altitudes. It also states that there is a heavy concentration of air tour operations at 500 feet AGL in the vicinity of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and pilots should avoid overflying these areas and maintain appropriate lateral distances. All aircraft in the exclusion are to be below 1,100 feet AGL.
In the exclusion areas, I always fly with the landing light on and self-announce as I’m consistently aware of the environment I’m flying in. The professional pilots who fly in these areas every day are familiar with these routes, with reporting points, and understand the environment they fly in. A fellow pilot friend calls it "Intense Cockpit Airspace Management." Air safety is now under scrutiny but this situation is not new. I have flown in the New York area for more than 20 years and have had several situations where fixed-wing aircraft flew extremely close to me and were not even aware of it. The development of the helicopter traffic routes was a vast improvement for aviation traffic and safety. In the late 1980s, while flying for a local operator, I had the opportunity to work with the FAA in developing these routes which are still in use today.
How do we want the FAA to address this issue? At a recent Helicopter Pilots Association conference in Morrisville, N.J., the FAA discussed the large volume of traffic that flies in the exclusion areas. For many in attendance, it was astonishing. The FAA also claimed that they do not want to control the exclusion areas as they already have an abundance of air traffic to vector in that area.
As professional pilots, we know how vital helicopter services are to New York and surrounding areas. So we must discuss the issue of the casual, inexperienced "Sunday" pilot having access to this airspace. Some experts say yes and some say no. Some pilots and experts claim fixed-wing traffic should not be allowed in the exclusion at all. Do these pilots follow the recommended procedures? Do they even have or look at the TAC or Helicopter Route Charts? Do they make themselves known by continually self-announcing on the radio? Believe it or not, there are many pilots flying today who have anxiety and fear of talking on the radio.
Since the mishap occurred, I have been very busy conducting interviews with the local media since the pilot of the Piper was from the Philadelphia area. My comments focus on situational awareness, blind spots and the possible need for some changes to include hard altitude restrictions for aircraft in the exclusion or restricting fixed-wing traffic completely. Once again we are talking about risk management and knowing our limitations.
My next column will focus on the aspects of the mishap. We’ll look at what happened, why it happened, what recommendations will be addressed, what we can learn from this mishap and take a look at helicopter operations in the New York area.