Avoiding another Hudson disaster

August 10, 2009 3:46:05 PM PDT
After the helicopter and plane collision that killed nine people, many people are wondering how we can avoid another tragedy like this? Airspace over the Hudson is chaos, according to pilots. But what's the answer? Asking already overworked air traffic controllers to take over?

The unregulated space over the Hudson has, for years, helped to alleviate congestion for over-burdened air traffic controllers. But the drum beat for the FAA to do something to make the corridor safer is growing louder. The possible solutions, though, are as tricky as flying in the exclusion zone.

A flight in NewsCopter 7 along the Hudson at mid-day quickly revealed the hazards of flying in the airspace. Even though traffic is moderate, it comes from all angles. Both the pilot and the helicopter reporter are constantly looking for other aircraft. It makes a big difference what altitude the helicopter is at.

Above 1,100 feet is controlled airspace, meaning pilots must communicate with Air Traffic Control. Their directions ensure separation, which adds a layer of safety.

But below 1,100 feet, the airspace is unregulated. No communications are required, and aircraft operate on a "see and avoid" voluntary system. NewsCopter7 tries to stay out of this uncontrolled space as much as possible:

"You could fly up and down the river at will," WABC-TV helicopter reporter John DelGiorno said. "You can circle area at will. It is up to the pilot to announce on a frequency their position and heading. It's not required."

In that uncontrolled space, nothing dictates how close you can get to other aircraft except training and common sense, which varies greatly from pilot to pilot.

"The FAA needs to wake up," Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer said.

Politicians lined up Monday to say the mid-air collision was predictable and could have been avoided had the FAA not ignored the warning signs.

Searching a government database filled with numerous reports from numerous pilots who had close calls over the Hudson revealed many of those signs. One pilot says he passed within 80 feet of another aircraft. Another admits to being inexperienced and describes crossing dangerously close into the path of a helicopter. Other testimony detailed how pilots took evasive action of avoid a mid-air collision.

"The Hudson River flight corridor must not continue to be the wild west," Congressman Jerrold Nadler said. "The FAA must act immediately before more lives are lost."

Some pilots have suggested restricting helicopters to 800 feet or lower and planes to 1,000 feet and higher:

"If you have airplanes not flying at the same altitude, the airplanes aren't going to collide with each other," aviation attorney and pilot Justin Green said. "That's simple and won't cost anyone a dime."

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said her office would hold hearings on the issue.

"For too long, the FAA has taken a wait and see approach when it comes to air traffic over the Hudson," Quinn said. "Well, we have waited. And now we have seen the senseless devastation that the lack of regulation has had for the families. Regardless of what the investigation uncovers, the time has come for the FAA to reassess their regulatory practices for the Hudson River corridor. And it's time for the City to review and analyze our policies when it comes to air traffic over our neighborhoods."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is opposed to banning helicopter traffic, both for business travelers and for tourism. However, he would not attempt to stand in the way of any federal regulations that emerged in the aftermath of Saturday's mid air collision.

"I'm not going to pressure the F.A.A.," Bloomberg said. "They don't need me weighing in. They know certainly well what goes on there. They are professionals. I assume they're going to wait until the National Transportation Safety Board to make its report and then they'll make their decisions."

In a statement to Eyewitness News, the FAA said, "It's policy is to listen to any concerns raised by members of Congress and that it is open to dialogue."

The statement went on to say that the FAA cannot say at this time if any changes would be made in the airspace.