News Archive

Thoughts on the Hudson River midair

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

I flew a corporate Bell 430 in and out of New York for 7 years and prior to that I worked for Liberty Helicopters flying tours. That was 14 years ago, so I didn’t know the pilot or anyone else involved in the recent accident in the Hudson River corridor. However, this accident brought back memories about the airspace congestion in New York.

When I was flying tours we were all concerned about the possibility of midair collisions, especially on nice days. The airspace is highly congested and the areas that are excluded from the Class B are small and extend from the surface of the rivers to only 1,100 feet. Many pilots considered the level of attention required in this airspace comparable to flying in combat. Although, I have no military experience I can only imagine the level of vigilance necessary when someone is trying to shoot you down. From my prospective, flying around New York safely demands a high level of alertness.

There is a sequence of reporting points up and down both the Hudson River and the East River. The pilots I worked with in New York were extremely good at stating their positions regularly. Occasionally, a pilot would fly up and down the rivers without ever talking on the radio. Technically, it’s not required as the airspace is uncontrolled, however, the self-announce frequency is published on the charts. I often wondered if the non-local pilots who did monitor the frequency actually knew where the reporting points were located as most referenced a local landmark or bridge.

Some of the news reporters commenting on this accident seemed shocked that there was no requirement to talk to ATC. I don’t think making the airspace over the rivers part of the Class B is a good idea. New York controllers are already very busy and if everyone approaching or departing a New York heliport needed a clearance it would overwhelm ATC.

When I flew the Bell 430 around New York it had a Skywatch traffic system. It was a big help in identifying aircraft close to us. Good visual scanning skills and this type of technology might be the answer to making this level of congested airspace safer.

Colorful characters

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

 

It seems that almost all industries and groups have their share of larger than life personalities. For some, the publicity is good and for others it does not bode so well. Aviation has its share of colorful characters and the helicopter industry seems to attract them.

 

You might remember back in early February a helicopter pilot named David Martz whose antics and famous passenger got him in the news. On board his helicopter that day was rock star Tommy Lee. An LAPD helicopter pilot/officer reported that Martz flew too close to his aircraft, was flying erratically, and disobeyed orders from the air traffic control tower.

 

The LAPD pilot told Martz to land at Van Nays airport. When local officers arrived, the helicopter was shut down and Martz and Lee were gone. A search of the area found Martz at a local hotel bar drinking. He told the officers he started drinking as soon as he landed. A breathalyzer test was inconclusive as to whether Martz was under the influence while flying. Lee was later tracked down, questioned, and released.

 

This incident put a public spotlight on Martz’s past. In 2006, he landed a helicopter on a Hollywood Hills public street, in front of Lee’s house, and took Lee and a guest to a rock concert. He was charged with reckless flying.

 

In 2007, he was photographed grabbing a topless woman while flying a helicopter. The FAA received an e-mail and photographs describing the incident. However, they decided not to pursue it because there was no formal complaint filed and there was no proof he was flying when the photos were taken.

 

Recently, a video surfaced of Martz and a porn star flying over San Diego. A statement from the FAA says the tape shows Martz participating in lewd behavior while flying his helicopter. The agency issued an emergency revocation of his pilot certificate.

 

I have heard many different opinions on this pilot. Some said he was just enjoying the freedom of aviation and does not deserve to be harassed by the FAA. Others said he is reckless, gives the industry a bad image, and is an out of control risk taker. I am personally someone who believes the government should interfere in our lives as little as possible. However, there are times when public safety requires some form of intervention.

 

In this case, landing on a public street without authorization or adequate safety controls endangers the public. Flying over a populated area with such distractions can present unnecessary and unwarranted risk to persons on the ground. I understand that this is not the first or only time this type of activity has happened in an aircraft, but putting a video on the Internet really shows bad judgment.

Pedal power

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

The idea of a human-powered helicopter has intrigued many engineers and pilots. Although a practical application really does not exist, it is a good exercise in the development of highly efficient airfoils and light weight structures. As such, many colleges and universities have put together teams of engineering students to develop and build a human-powered helicopter.

A human-powered aircraft is defined as a vehicle that can carry at least one person using only what power is provided by the person(s) on board, usually by pedaling. Early attempts mainly involved airplanes. For example, the best known human-powered airplane is the Gossamer Albatross, which flew across the English Channel in 1979. Helicopters which require much more power to hover present a much bigger challenge. The two biggest problems are weight reduction and designing a highly efficient rotor system. Efficiency means that the rotors must generate a lot of lift with very little drag.

In 1980, to help further and support the idea of a human powered helicopter, the American Helicopter Society established the Igor I. Sikorsky human-powered helicopter competition. A prize of $20,000 was offered for a successful controlled flight lasting for 60 seconds and reaching an altitude of 3 meters while remaining in an area 10 meters square.

The first vehicle that actually got airborne was the Da Vinci III in 1989, designed and built by students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California. For high rotor efficiency, the students knew that it would be important for the blades to work with as much air as possible. A big rotor handles a large amount of air and thus requires less energy to produce lift. The Da Vinci III had a 100-foot rotor diameter and a tip speed of 50 feet per second. In order to reduce weight, rotor tip propellers provided thrust. This eliminated the need for a transmission and anti torque system. The approximate weight of the aircraft with pilot was 230 lbs. It flew for 7.1 seconds and reached a height of 8 inches. However, the helicopter was unstable and required students on the ground to assist with control. No attempt was ever made to correct the instability.

The current world record for human-powered helicopters is held by an aircraft named Yuri I, built by a team from the Nihon Aero Student Group (NASG). It used four two-blade rotor systems (10 meter diameter each) operating at 20 rpm. In 1994, it achieved a height of 20 cm for 19.46 seconds unassisted and unofficially reached 70 cm during a flight lasting 24 seconds.

As far as I can tell, the most recent attempt, although unsuccessful, at a human-powered helicopter was on August 10, 2004, by a group of engineering students at the University of British Columbia. Although their project seems to be on hold, their Web site is still up.

Many have attempted to fly human-powered helicopters both before and after the creation of the Sikorsky Prize. So far no one has met all of the Sikorsky prize’s requirements.