The NTSB had a public hearing yesterday to report on one of last year’s most horrific accidents, the collision between a Piper Saratoga transiting the Hudson river corridor and a sight seeing helicopter. Summarized are the findings:
“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was (1) the inherent limitations of the see-and-avoid concept, which made it difficult for the airplane pilot to see the helicopter until the final seconds before the collision, and (2) the Teterboro Airport local controller’s nonpertinent telephone conversation, which distracted him from his air traffic control duties, including correcting the airplane pilot’s read back of the Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) tower frequency and the timely transfer of communications for the accident airplane to the EWR tower. Contributing to this accident were (1) both pilots’ ineffective use of available information from their aircraft’s electronic traffic advisory system to maintain awareness of nearby aircraft, (2) inadequate Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) procedures for transfer of communication among air traffic control facilities near the Hudson River class B exclusion area; and (3) FAA regulations that did not provide adequate vertical separation for aircraft operating in the Hudson River class B exclusion area.”
The FAA, AOPA, Air Safety Foundation, the NY helicopter community and a number of other players wasted no time in convening a special working group immediately after the accident to assess and address highlighted shortcomings in the crash. This was complete only months after the crash which serves as a model of responsiveness!
They came up with some reasonable procedures which included tightening up ATC’s responsibility, creating ground rules for operations in an SFRA for anyone who would operate in this high density airspace and improving the charting.
It was both a privilege and pleasure to conduct a live seminar and one of our first webinars in Newark, NJ and White Plains, NY after the working group had come up with their recommendations. The Jersey meeting was entertaining and educational! Living up to its reputation for attitude, the participants waxed “energetic” and challenged some of the working group’s assertions. I love Jersey!
I have to question the NTSB’s first finding on probable cause. There are limitations to see and avoid but the primary cause here was procedural involving ATC performance and practice (largely addressed now) by putting a “non-participating” aircraft into the high density of the corridor – as it existed at that time. The other questionable finding is the contributing factor regarding the pilots’ ” Ineffective use of available information from the electronic traffic advisory systems” that both aircraft had aboard.
The systems were NOT intended nor designed to function effectively in that level of traffic density and anyone who has flown them should understand their limitations in this regard. The wonderful TCAS system on board airliners disables itself below 1000 agl to eliminate nuisance alerts. This technology is evolving but the board’s insistence on this point, overruling NTSB staff recommendation, is unfortunate.
The new recommendations are generally reasonable. However, the idea that ALL revenue helicopter operations need collision avoidance gear is not appropriate. There are low density locations where the cost-benefit just won’t compute well.
I’m certain there will be some discussion. Two big things I take away from this accident –
1) Multi-tasking degrades our ability to really focus on critical priorities and as a mindset, it’s now more prevalent than ever! This applies to both controllers and pilots.
2) On a more global sense just because we haven’t had an accident in a certain area or activity doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing it right – it just means we’ve been lucky. There were no accidents in the corridor for nearly 40 years and yet, after looking at the details, the new procedures make a lot of sense. The devilish difficulty is that the safety-at-all-costs crowd can legislate any activity out of business in no time. It is often the case that excellent safety procedures have been in place but there was a lapse. The mere fact that an accident occurred doesn’t always mean the system failed. Finding the balance point is exceedingly difficult.
NTSB’s New Recommendations
The National Transportation Safety Board recommends the following to the Federal Aviation Administration:
- Redefine the boundaries of the East River common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) so that the Downtown Manhattan Heliport will be located in the area that uses the Hudson River CTAF.
- Revise 14 Code of Federal Regulations 93.352 to specify altitudes of use for aircraft conducting local operations in the Hudson River special flight rules area so that the regulation includes required operating altitudes for both local and transiting aircraft, and incorporate the altitude information for local operations onto published visual flight rules aeronautical charts for the area.
- Update Advisory Circular 90-48C to reflect current-day operations, including (1) a description of the current National Airspace System and airspace classifications, (2) references to air tour operational areas as high-volume traffic environments, and (3) guidance on the use of electronic traffic advisory systems for pilots operating under the see-and-avoid concept.
- Develop standards for helicopter cockpit electronic traffic advisory systems that (1) address, among other flight characteristics, the capability of helicopters to hover and to fly near other aircraft at lower altitudes, slower airspeeds, and different attitudes than fixed-wing airplanes; (2) reduce nuisance alerts when nearby aircraft enter the systems’ alerting envelope; and (3) consider the different types of operations conducted by helicopters, including those in congested airspace. (Supersedes Safety Recommendation A-09-04 and is classified “Open—Unacceptable Response”)
- Once standards for helicopter electronic traffic advisory systems are developed, as requested in Safety Recommendation , require electronic news gathering operators, air tour operators, and other operators of helicopters used for passenger revenue flight to install this equipment on their aircraft. (Supersedes Safety Recommendation A‑09‑05)
What do you think?