Thoughts on the Hudson River midair

August 20, 2009 by Tim McAdams

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.

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15 Responses to “Thoughts on the Hudson River midair”

  1. Avi Weiss Says:

    I live in NYC, and regularly fly an R-22 on an “island tour”, though I don’t work for any company.

    There are days when the route is crowded and days when it is relatively empty. That said, the ugly truth is that if you have limited airspace, and traffic increases, the probability for a mid-air increases. Add high-variability in pilot skill, airspace familiarity, and discipline, mix in different category aircraft, and the probabilities increase even further.

    As loathe as I am to recommend it, I feel that separating fixed-wing from rotary-wing traffic is a “quick and easy” first step to significantly reducing chances of another mid-air. Additional items would be to raise the exclusion-area to 1400 feet, and perhaps require a logbook endorsement that you have received / taken some form of “familiarization course” with airspace, landmarks, and call-outs prior to arriving.

  2. David Nuss Says:

    Mr. McAdams;

    You’re spot on with how the exclusion works.

    I flew 11 years military all over the world and nine years charter and corporate in the NYC area. The helicopter pilots who make their living flying in an out of NYC have an exemplary safety record. Anyone who doubts the safety should search NTSB records and see how few accidents there have been, and listen to the frequency to see how well pilots sequence themselves. New Yorkers and all helicopter pilots can be proud of the professional pilot community in the NYC area.

    The current right-sized-regulation by FAA has worked very well for this piece of airspace. It allows for access, safety, and gives room for the professional operators to self-regulate, which we do as you observe. Companies and individual pilots establish their own SOPs to higher standards than the rules because we know safety comes first.

    Technology is not the answer. TCAS becomes too dense at busy times and brings a pilot’s eyes inside when they should be outside, with ears tuned to the radio.

    ATC is not the answer. There have been more midairs in Class D airspace under tower control, than in the exclusion area, based on NTSB records dating to 1962.

    What’s missing is more comprehensive knowledge outside the local community. Hopefully an AC will be published, and perhaps HAI and ERHC can work with the FAA Safety Team to produce an orientation video for those from outside the area, and share it with AOPA. ERHC already has a history of reaching out proactively to AOPA, local airplane pilot groups, and airport management to advise local and transient pilots of how to operate safely through the exclusion.

    Millions of safe flights by all manner of aircraft have taken place in this environment under the current rules, so see & avoid, listen & talk really do work. Education, vigilance, and alertness are the key in maintaining safety in the future.

  3. Ehud Gavron Says:

    Tim, as always you wrote an informative and well-reasoned discussion of the unfortunate events. I agree with the majority here that more regulation and more ATC work is not the answer to this particular problem. The real problem is there are people flying around who are not instructed on how to read a sectional chart nor make appropriate CTAF announcements.

    As helicopter pilots (I’m still a student until Monday and hopefully not one after ;) we’re extra careful to both self-announce more often than required and to listen to others to maintain our awareness of where everyone is in the three dimensional space in which we fly. Too often it appears other pilots are more self-forgiving (my nice way of saying “lax”) and figure it’s up to everyone else to not hit them.

    The accident over the Hudson was tragic not just because it cost the lives of innocent people, but because it was 100% avoidable. I’m not trying to make the issue about age — but have the regs and charts changed so much that the people who are flying in their 60s and 70s and have not taken written tests in decades still up on Class E, Class G, CTAF, Reporting Points, and everything else that is involved in flying an aircraft in such airspace? If not, perhaps the solution isn’t to make everyone else suffer (including the ATC guys) but rather restrict the “grandfathered” licensees to space where they won’t be a mortal danger to themselves, their passengers, and others.

    I enjoy your viewpoints and those of your readers. I always learn something from them.

    Best regards,

    Ehud Gavron
    Tucson AZ

  4. Doug Helton Says:

    I’m with Avi Weiss on this one. It is dangerous to mix different speed aircraft in such a tight space especially when slower helicopters can enter from below or from the side. I’ve flown down the corridor several times in a mooney, bonanza and cherokee six. You just have no room to maneuver in a fixed wing aircraft. You’ve got Class B airspace just to the right and above you and opposite direction to the left. The only place you have to go is down into helicopter traffic and closer to obstructions. Introducing a helicopter at slower speed into the mix from any direction is disaster waiting to happen. That doesn’t apply to just helicopters either. Mixing a slow (e.g. piper cub) and fast (bonanza) fixed wing aircraft is a bad idea too with such limited maneuvering space. Requiring fast aircraft to slow down a lot isn’t a good answer for matching speeds due to the nose-high attitude required to maintain slower speeds.

    I see no reason that a helicopter should be higher than 800′ in the corridor…granted this is based on my limited knowledge of the variety of helicopter operations in this area. Increasing the ceiling to at least 1,200 would leave 400′ to provide fixed wing traffic with “primary and passing lanes” or “slow and fast lanes” so to speak. Rasing the ceiling further would provide better options for separating crossing helicopter traffic as well.

    Good procedures will do way more to solve these issues than regulation or ATC control.

  5. Mark Douglas Says:

    I somewhat agree with the comment about TCAS but I wonder if maybe requiring ADS-B equipment in the corridor wouldn’t add a level of additional information, be an excellent use of that technology and also filter out casual pilots who don’t invest in the technology. It would effectively be a one-time fee of approximately $8,000 per aircraft for the equipment to use the corridor while directly adding to safety there. It would also likely placate critics who don’t understand how airplanes are allowed to fly without always being under air traffic control by showing them an automated way of adding the safety margin that comes from ATC.

  6. Bill Gillette Says:

    As an outsider, I prefer the recommendation for a “familiarization course” and I’d add a code for the updated familiarization such as “with Delta” or the like. Also, changes in altitude of 50ft. need to be announced. After 50 years of safe flying I’m staying out of crowded uncontrolled airspace and I’m wondering why I ever wanted to fly in it. If you are flying VFR over the Hudson and enjoying it, you are obviously overlooking something. I’ve seen the video of the tragic accident and I recognize the match-up of blind spots. As a Cessna pilot I have seen low wing aircraft pass over me unexpectedly, both of us calling the tower afterward to find out what gives. Those blind spots are huge. Perhaps the corridor could be layered with high wing restricted to a layer above low wing. Self reporting sounds good, but if another pilot reports a position near you there won’t be any time to visually clear those blind spots. If you are inexperienced in these corridors, take my learning to heart: either fly the fastest aircraft or stay the heck out.

  7. Bill Mager Says:

    The last time I flew the Hudson corridor in a Cessna 172 it seemed prudent to keep high 950 ft. and announce at the recommended points. North-bound all went well. Choppers were well below and visible. However, on the return trip, Southbound on the NJ side, at the same altitude I was surpised to see a North-bound light twin cut across the river in front of me. It passed just below and appeared to be inbound to Teterboro. I generally avoid the corridor as I’m not sure what the Teterboro pattern entry rules are from the Hudson corridor.

  8. Sandy St.John Says:

    I’m just a GA pilot in Texas, and have never flown the Hudson River. But flying a lot around Dallas Class B, and with my business all around the country, I know a little about busy airspace. I self announce my position regularly everywhere (except when flying IFR or on flight following, controlled airspace, etc) – because a mid-air can happen anywhere, anytime. I recently partcipated in the 2009 Air Race Classic – we were low level high speed for 2400 miles – and all 33 teams were self announcing their positions along the race route – not only for the other racers, but also for the local pilots who might out for a joy ride.
    It only takes one mid-air to ruin our day – and we’ve only got one life to live. I’d rather clog up the frequencies with a few short, informative, postion calls than have someone bagging up my body later on in the day.

  9. FRED BASHARA Says:

    i HAVE BEEN FLYING FOR OVER 40 YEARS AND HAVE OWNED 5 AIRPLANES. FLYNG PASSENGERS IN A AIRSPACE SUCH AS THE HUDSON RIVER CORRIDOR IS A :LOOK AT ME” ACT LIKE BUZZYING YOUR GIRLFRIENDS HOUSE “I.M FLYING..WATCH THIS”
    THE PIPER PILOT COULD HAVE FILED IFR TO OCEAN CITY AND BE ALIVE TODAT AND SO WOULD HIS VICTIMS BE ALIVE.
    THEY ALL DIED SO THE PIPER PILOT COULD POINT OUT BUILDINGS.
    THERE IS SIMPLY TOO MUCH OF THIS DARING DO TODAY, THERE MAY HAVE BEEN ROOM FOR IT 50 YEARS AGO BUT NOT NOW.

  10. shellEy Rosenbaum Lipman Says:

    I flew the Hudson River corridor for many years (fixed-wing). I would always self-announce (as would many other pilots), but I hadn’t begun doing that until I went to a local safety seminar. Why? At least in those days, the Terminal chart said something like, “helicopter pilots or East River traffic self-announce on …” Since I was fixed-wing on the Hudson, I thought it didn’t apply to me. I don’t know if they’ve updated the chart (I moved away from the area nearly 15 years ago), but if it still is this confusing, others may not be self-announcing.

    Second, there should be specific entry/exit points for the Hudson. I can’t understand how the Saratoga pilot could have legally entered the corridor where he did: by flying due east from Teterboro, there is no way he could have been 1000′ above the ground, since the cliffs of the Palisades are ~200-300′ high, and the base of the Class B is 1100 MSL. I always entered around the Tappan Zee Bridge, where the base of Class B is 2500′. That also allows time to get established to get a better situation awareness of all the traffic.

  11. DAVID KAHN Says:

    The video of the recent accident also suggested to me that the blind spot created by a low wing aircraft with a climbing helicopter may have been contributory. I Have flown the Hudson corridor over the past many years, and like most, have felt very edgy at times. I would often feel the need for more eyeballs looking out for traffic.

    Although I have not flown this route since 9/11, given my concerns, I had adopted the procedure of arranging a class B clearance at 1500 feet, often to start near the Tappan Zee bridge. This gave me the obvious added benefit of separation with all VFR traffic in the corridor. In addition, I usually was able to get a clearance up the East River and then directly over Laguardia tower to exit the airspace to the North. In this circumstance, I never even contemplated the need to turn around in the narrow East River to reverse course, something that would have helped Corey Lidell in his Cirrus accident.

    Although the above method is my way of staying safe, I am not advocating that the corridor be placed strictly under control of the controllers since there are precious few, if any other corridors for VFR traffic to get through the NY metropolitan airspace from north and south

  12. Russ Bassani Says:

    Folks,
    I’ve flown the Hudson River many many times since getting my license in 1973 and have always
    maintained a “stick to the Right policy”, as Jersey side when Southbound, City side when Northbound,
    lights on, and 1,000 feet AGL.

    That coupled with “eyes outside the cockpit”, and things were fine.
    All this talk of Teterboro tower’s responsibility, and more regs, is trash talk.

  13. Howard Tedoff Says:

    Russ Bassani makes the most rational argument. I would only add ‘…announce your position’ and “…stick to the right side policy”.
    This was the first ever mid-air within the corridor. Most often, it is not at all busy but is almost always serene to a pilot.
    .

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