Collision raises air safety questions

August 8, 2009 8:54:15 PM PDT
It is an extremely busy area where this fatal crash happened over the Hudson River. Now there is focus on the airspace. They call it the exclusion zone, where pilots do not need clearance to fly from point a to point b if under 1100 feet.

It might have been four seconds of sheer terror and full awareness for the 9 people killed in today's horrific crash.

Aviation expert J.P. Tristoni has flown fighter jets in the Marine Corp, airliners and helicopters.

He says anytime a helicopter which has a rotor blade is involved in a mid-air collision, it's most likely going to be catastrophic, eliminating the chance for anything to glide down..

"You've just run into a buzz saw. It would cleave through metal and it apparently looks like the right wing was sheared off," he said.

That's when both aircraft, the single engine 7-seater plane and the sightseeing helicopter filled with Italian tourists, dropped like a rock.

"People think that that because you dive into water, it is soft. If you hit at that speed, it's like a brick wall," Tristoni explained.

But it's not always a death sentence. In January, a U-S Airways pilot crash-landed in the Hudson. All 155 people on board survived Two yrs ago another Liberty helicopter carrying tourists fell 500 feet from the sky, but in that case landed safely on the river. No one survived today.

'This one was a split second crash where probably neither pilot saw it coming. So it would be a thunderous crash with no survivors versus the splashdown all survive," Tristoni.

Newscopter 7 pilot John del Giorno described the location of the crash over the Hudson as a busy general aviation corridor that is not necessarily over populated, but one that requires pilots communicate in a see and be seen way or else tragedy.

"This collision appears to have taken place as two aircraft - one from New York, one from New Jersey - merge together on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River," he said.

The accident happened in the exclusion zone, where pilots can come and go without clearance from air traffic control. Instead, they are expected to report their position to each other making communication paramount.

The accident also comes less than a month after a federal watchdog warned that safety oversight of sightseeing and other for-hire flights is too lax.

The Department of Transportation's inspector general sharply criticized the Federal Aviation Administration in the report for providing significantly weaker safety oversight of the "on-demand" flight industry - companies hired to fly aircraft, both helicopters and planes, that seat less than 30 people - than it does of the commercial airline industry.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Debbie Hersman said in an interview with The Associated Press before the Hudson River accident that the report makes it clear "that there is disparate level of oversight."

Criticism of the FAA's oversight of the on-demand flight industry isn't new. Since 2002, the NTSB has made 16 recommendations related to safety of the on-demand flight industry. FAA has not implemented any of them.

An FAA advisory committee spent two years examining on-demand flight industry safety, issuing 124 recommendations in September 2005. Nearly four years later, none of those recommendations - many of which paralleled the NTSB recommendations - have been implemented.

The report noted that FAA is developing a new approach to safety oversight for for-hire operators that would target the most risky operations. However, it said the new system isn't scheduled for full deployment for at least four years.

FAA officials have said they agree with recommendations in the inspector general's report and are implementing them.

There are over 2,300 on-demand operators in the U.S., flying more than 9,000 aircraft. In 2007 and 2008, a period in which there were no deaths due to commercial airline accidents, there were 33 fatal on-demand aircraft accidents in which 109 people were killed.

Many of the regulations governing the industry haven't been updated since 1978. Since that time technology has changed. The use of jets by for-hire companies is now common, for example. Operators also fly more complex types of flights and more international flights.

On-demand companies are also not required to employ an FAA-licensed dispatcher, and their aircraft don't have to be equipped with warnings systems that alert pilots when they are in danger of colliding with another aircraft or flying into the ground. Nor do they have to have cockpit voice or data recorders or in-flight radar systems. There are also less stringent maintenance requirements.

The inspector general's report cited as an example an on-demand operator that flies dozens of flight a day taking tourists to glaciers where the planes land and take off on skis. The operator has 17 planes and was inspected eight times by FAA in 2008. By contrast, a commercial airline with 10 planes overseen by the same FAA office received 199 inspections the same year.

For-hire industry pilots are required to have a minimum of 500 hours of flight experience and a commercial license, while a commercial airline captain is required to have 1,500 hours of flight experience and needs to obtain the more difficult air transport license.

The pilots are also not required to employ an FAA-licensed dispatcher, and their aircraft don't have to be equipped with warnings systems that alert pilots when they are in danger of colliding with another aircraft or flying into the ground. Nor do they have to have cockpit voice or data recorders or in-flight radar systems. There are also less stringent maintenance requirements.

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Information from the Associated Press is included in this story.

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