Volume 79, Number 12 | Aug. 26 - Sept. 1, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

Villager photo by J.B. Nicholas

After the midair crash 1,100 feet over the Hudson River on July 8, a tire from the small Piper Lance plane landed in Hoboken, N.J.

Let pilots keep on flying free in Hudson corridor

By Ian Dutton

On July 26, a tragic crash on the Taconic Parkway in Westchester County claimed eight lives, four of them children. The Taconic Parkway is heavily traveled and was designed in the 1920s and ’30s when current traffic volumes and speeds were not imagined. This is no cruise through Iowa cornfields; a driver must pay attention and be prepared for the unexpected. Because of these conditions and the history of multiple fatal crashes every year, after the most recent well-publicized crash, local and federal elected officials held a press conference to demand that no more cars be allowed on the Taconic. 

In our own backyard, in a recent one-year period, Houston St. had three separate crashes each of which resulted in the death of a cyclist. In an average year, dozens of pedestrians are treated for injuries when struck by cars and trucks while just trying to cross this thoroughfare. Wisely, a coalition of our representatives expressed outrage and called for the closure of Houston St. to all traffic in order to stop the carnage. 

And on the Cross Bronx Expressway, besides the hundreds of collisions that take place every year, children in neighboring communities have the highest rates of childhood asthma in the U.S. To prevent thousands of innocent kids’ lives being so negatively affected, there is an uproar as public officials call for a ban on driving on the Cross Bronx. 

Of course, I’m being facetious. Despite the clear dangers faced by motorists and innocent bystanders  alike, no elected official ever gets up and says that we should close a roadway, even after clear patterns of tragic impacts. Can you say, “Queens Boulevard?”

Contrast this with the July 8 collision over the Hudson River of a Piper Lance and a Eurocopter sightseeing helicopter. While certainly a great tragedy, this was the first midair collision in the Hudson Visual Flight Rules, or V.F.R., corridor since 1963 — nearly 50 years ago — and only the third fatal general aviation accident in New York City since 1990. Yet a stream of elected officials, many of whom I otherwise hold in high regard, have been angling for time in front of a camera to tell you that, before any investigation has been completed, they know the right solution: Ban the flights, close the corridor. 

This is what is known as a “windshield perspective.” These elected officials are probably quite familiar with driving, and though they consciously know cars kill more Americans each and every month than were lost in the tragedy of Sept. 11, they accept the collateral damage because it is familiar. I’d also guess that these same elected officials have not undertaken flight training and thus are unable to relate to concepts such as see-and-avoid, positive-control airspace or the role of a flight plan to Instrument Flight Rules, or I.F.R., versus V.F.R. aircraft. As a result, they make suggestions that are either irrelevant to the scenario or don’t reflect the risk at hand. 

Mayor Bloomberg, on the other hand, with his experience as a pilot and familiarity with the Hudson V.F.R. corridor, was brilliantly rational in his comments just hours after the accident. What happened was extraordinarily rare and presents a much lower risk to the public than, say, lightning strikes. Nonetheless, the aviation community thoroughly investigates each and every crash with a scientific precision, and this process will likely generate specific recommendations that deserve careful consideration. 

As has been reported, it is possible to fly over the Hudson River at altitudes below 1,100 feet without any specific requirements to be in contact with air-traffic control. This, in essence, is what is meant by the term “V.F.R. corridor.” There is nothing unusual with this at all; in fact, many large cities have such corridors to segregate small aircraft proceeding on their own from commercial aircraft operating to and from the major airports. Indeed, you can fly over almost all of the United States without talking to an air-traffic controller except in the proximity of the busiest airports. Airspace where contact is required is actually the exception. 

Compare this to driving: Who is “controlling” your actions as you cruise along at 75 miles per hour on the thruway? Who is responsible for your separation from other vehicles? When you change lanes, shouldn’t there be someone giving you permission to do so? When driving, you may be just feet from the nearest car, while when flying, it’s exceedingly rare to be within a mile of another aircraft. And probability is on your side: It’s a big sky, even in the most congested areas. The National Transportation Safety Board reports that in the week preceding the Hudson crash, each day an average of 225 aircraft flew in the corridor. Even if you limit “day” to 12 hours, that’s less than one aircraft every 3 minutes. Count how many cars pass you on the West Side Highway every 3 minutes — and they are all at the same altitude. 

In the wake of the crash, some statements from our local officials are simply offensive. Though I hold Manhattan Borough President Stringer in the highest regard, for him to state, “Amateur hour in the sky is over,” shows that he has no connection with the aviation community. If by “amateur,” he means inexperienced or untrained, I question whether he means the 30-year veteran Piper pilot or the 2,700-hour commercial helicopter pilot. The extensive training and testing required to obtain even a basic private pilot’s license stands in stark contrast to the minimal requirements required to legally drive a motor vehicle, even on a commercial basis, such as a taxicab. Further, I’d wager that at the moment you are reading this, there are multiple unlicensed drivers speeding along on our neighborhood streets; I’d be mortified if a single unrated pilot flew the Hudson corridor in the last month. 

Congressman Nadler, otherwise a leader on transportation issues, also showed disappointing unawareness. His suggestions that pilots operating in the V.F.R. corridor are “unregulated” and that the corridor is “the Wild West” hardly reflects the massive Federal Aviation Regulations and Aeronautical Information Manual guidance that must be adhered to while flying. Is driving on a city street unregulated? Are there not speed limits, right-of-way rules and places you must not drive? These regulations apply even for the most basic flight and are barely the tip of the iceberg. 

Flying in the congested New York airspace is unquestionably challenging and not for pilots who are unwilling to operate at the peak of their skills. Indeed, most pilots choose to avoid the area altogether, for it is no cruise around an Iowa cornfield. Sounds a lot like the Taconic Parkway or Cross Bronx, right?

Statistics and reality bear out, though, that the average New Yorker has much more to fear from that which we accept as everyday risk. Careful investigation may provide opportunities to make the Hudson corridor even safer, and the unrelated discussion of relocating the tourist heliport out of what has become valuable parkland is relevant.

However, we have the world’s safest aviation system because we use a scientific approach, not by looking for sound bites and reassuring politics. If, as asserted in this newspaper’s editorial column, this was “an accident just waiting to happen,” it sure waited a very long time. 

Dutton is a member of Community Board 2 and a Newark-based first officer on the Boeing 757 and 767 for a major airline and previously was a light-aircraft flight instructor.



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