Horror on the Hudson

August 12, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

Lower ManhattanUnfortunately, when bad news happens in GA, it can happen in a big way. The collision between a Piper Saratoga and a sight-seeing helicopter is tragic in all respects: Loss of life, destruction of aircraft, negative public perception and grandstanding by various entities with various motives.

Getting past the chatter and “news” is challenging but it reinforces how GA pilots operate on a national stage, whether that is our intent or not. Aviation is always under a microscope. The wreckage had not even been plucked from river before there were calls to close the corridor or to require procedural changes and equipage but let’s be sure we understand the cause, the fix and all of the ramifications

AOPA and ASF became engaged about :30 minutes after the accident providing factual information to the media and coordinating with FAA. That’s good because it allows us to clear up misconceptions of which there are many.

There have not been any other midair collisions between two aircraft in the Hudson corridor in the past 10 years. In fact, we haven’t been able to find any midair collisions in the Hudson corridor ever but we’re still looking. Nationally, there have been 49 midair collisions in the past 5 years that involved at least one fixed wing aircraft (excluding this accident – ASF doesn’t track helicopter-only accidents). Twenty-three were fatal with fifty-two people lost, with one fatality on the ground.

Can the record be improved? I think so, even though we’re dealing with very small numbers of random events. In high density traffic the use of eyes, CTAF, collision avoidance gear, where available, and following procedures explicitly will help.

We don’t shut down major roads despite an occasional accident but that’s not to justify ANY shortcomings that the investigation uncovers. The discussion will be robust and that there will be a healthy serving of politics wrapped as safety. Let’s stay focused on safety.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • John Eberle

    CTAF made the difference for the Hudson River ditching on January 2, 2006. The plane was a Piper single-engine (N2759M). I was very active on the Hudson River CTAF. I made a routine radio call, “Hudson River Traffic, Piper Warrior Northbound, passing Ground Zero, 900′”. Tony Sanseverino responded to my call, “Piper Warrior, Helicopter is opposite traffic, your 10:00 o’clock, we’ll be making a left turn and passing under you at 500′.” I responded, “Warrior has helicopter in sight, we remain Northbound at 900′.”
    It was a few minutes later that Tony, a helicopter pilot with Liberty Tours (after landing at his pier) didn’t answer my May Day call, but instead radioed to his former NYPD co-workers at Floyd Bennett Field. The rest is history — I was successfully rescued by NYPD helicopter and my student pilot was rescued by US Coast Guard helicopter. We were kept overnight for hypothermia, but no (not even minor) injuries. I am forever grateful to NYPD. They saved my life. And the CTAF clearly was an integral part of the rescue process.

  • James Heer

    I flew the corridor at 1100 feet once in a King Air on a charter flight between Trenton, NJ and White Plains, NY. The alternative was to fly IFR on a giant circle around NY. The VFR corridor saved me no less than one hour of flight time. And the passengers loved it.

    I think the VFR corridor on the Hudson is safe. If any improvement were made it would be to add a note on the chart to “fly on the right side of the Hudson”.

  • Peter Lane

    I’ve had occasion to fly the corridor a couple of times in a Bonanza and a Baron. The sightseeing must be left up to the passengers and the head of the pilot needs to be on a swivel and outside the airplane. It is busy but if flown within the guidelines and on a nice day it is no worse than a sunday at a busy GA training airport. The unknowing politicians and the grandstanders who think they know something about everything dont want to confuse the history with the facts. It is unfortunate that so many people died and our condolances go to their families. No amount of endless blather and call for more new regulation brings them back nor will it make it any safer that it already is.

  • Avi Weiss


    I have flown the corridor several times, and while it can be very busy, it is certainly not the “shooting gallery” made out by the press and politically motivated groups.

    Glad to hear that ASF is involved in countering media FUD on this accident. As the corridor is a political “hot spot”, this accident will undoubtedly be used as very strong leverage by influential politicians to get the corridor closed.

    The political machinery is already at work pushing for changes to corridor operations (http://bit.ly/Tf5Dl). I’m hopeful that a well prepared AOPA response laden with actual safety facts about the corridor will be able to help counter the inevitable rule proposals, etc that follow.

  • russ kinne

    I used to fly the ‘corridor’ regularly, commuting to a banner-towing job in NJ.
    Everyone kept to the right and kept their eyes open. No problems.
    A helicopter pilot can’t see behind and below him.
    A fixed-wing pilot can see what’s in front of and above him.
    Someone simply wasn’t looking
    The notation KEEP RIGHT could be put on the charts, but it shouldn’t even be needed. And helicopters can stay below 800′ and fixed-wing above. What’s so hard about that?

  • John Ritchie

    I watched Bruce Landsberg’s piece with the reporter from Fox News. Bruce did a great job trying to show this fellowwhat flying involves, but, as usual, the reporter spun it in a negative way. The main clip they showed on TV was the reporter aloft in the left seat with Bruce on the right. The reporter said “Gee, it looks like it would be very easy to miss another airplane” and the only part they let Bruce say was “Exactly!” and then the reporter went on to talk about movements to eliminate VFR not only in NYC but all over the country. We all know there is far more to this subject than that; I’m sorry Bruce but I think you were ambushed. But don’t let that deter you, you did an admirable job nonetheless…Thanks.

  • Ken Fogle

    I flew the Hudson River Corridor last month in my 172. I knew about it and it’s requirements from discussions with other pilots at the airport in Connecticut that I departed from. I could not find information defining the corridor and it’s rules on the charts I had available to me. Where is this information published?

  • David

    I flew a friend and myself along the Hudson corridor last month in a plane with no problem. We flew on a nice weekday mid-morning to avoid weekend and rush-hour traffic. We followed the suggested helicopter routes depicted as an inset on the New York VFR Terminal Area Chart and flew at 1000, above typical helicopter traffic, and self-announced on 123.05 as directed by the chart for “all aircraft”. East bank northbound, west bank southbound. I told my friend to take some good pictures because I had to focus on the flying. We saw one other plane and heard a couple radio calls. Very pleasant, beautiful views. I’m curious how Teterboro ATC figures into the equation from recent news reports, as its surface area does not reach the Hudson and surrounding airspace is Class B. Perhaps one or both aircraft were still being worked by Teterboro. It might be helpful to have recommended corridor routes for all traffic not only helicopters, and

  • Thomas W. Ivines

    I agree with Bruce Landsberg in that when an accident happens on a road, they do not close the road or mandate new safety rules. Only if the accident rate on that road is excessive are changes made.

    The media has a tendency to over express aviation incidents to the point the public often reacts adversly. Politicians tend to over-react, too, without fact.

    The only change needed is for pilots to be more aware of what’s outside their windows when flying, especially in high traffic areas. I mean, don’t we all heighten our awarenes when approaching a busy airport? The same consideration should be taken when flying the Hudson corridore.

    It is my hope that some day the aviation industry invests in educating the public on what is fact and what is fiction. Right now I’m afraid they are only reacting on emotions exaserbated by the media.

  • http://www.rally.cc Mike F.

    Ken Fogal asks where to find information about flying the corridor. I’m surprised that any flight instructor in CT didn’t know that it’s all printed on the NY TAC chart. If you haven’t seen a TAC chart, it’s a closeup of the Class B (formerly “Terminal Controlled”) airspace showing reporting points, altitudes and frequencies in greater detail than the Sectional chart. Check it out!

    As the news unfolds on this it seems unfortunate that this pilot was doing what we are always told to do – get flight following. Trouble is that he was talking to a controller and not on the CTAF, further complicated by having to have his head down to change frequencies just as the collision was about to occur. Looking at the NBC video release today it looks to me like he saw the helicopter just before impact and was turning away from it (to the right) but unfortunately lowering the right wing caught the rotor blade.

    Seems to me the only thing to remind pilots is that using the CTAF and looking outside the airplane is paramount in any self-controlled situation. I’ve flown the corridor many times over the past 20 years and it’s one of the most rewarding rides int he NE USA. My wife doesn’t like low and slow flying, so when we fly together we use flight following, but we do it inside the Class B airspace, usually at 2000′-3000′ over the corridor. This way we’re out of the way of the CTAF traffic but below the airliners. I’ve never been refused by ATC, although sometimes I get a few interesting vectors until I’m over the river.

    It seems to me that the corridor works fine the way it is and this is proved out by the complete lack of previous incidents. If anything, perhaps an on-line course in navigating the corridor could be a prerequisite in the same way that a course is required before flying into the Washington DC area.

  • Jim Goudy

    FYI – There was 37,261 traffic fatalities last year. That averages to 102 people a day. It seems to me that the media and law makers should be clamoring to make more stringent traffic laws.