Month: August 2009

Nine people dead and everyone is wondering how this could happen. The nut cases are out in force, shrieking that small aircraft are a menace and should be banned from New York airspace. The NTSB sent a go-team along with representatives of each of the aircraft makers and their engine builders to investigate the mid-air crash. If it had happened to anyone else, they would have sent a new hire with two weeks training.

This cause of the accident is simple and anyone who has ever flown into New York’s airspace could have predicted something like it would happen. Even though Visual Flight Rules (VFR) aircraft regularly use this airspace, if a careful pilot wants to get radar flight-following he might as well try calling the President because no one answers.

Altman didn’t have the chance to call Newark Approach Control before his aircraft was struck by the climbing helicopter

At the same time, a Liberty Helicopters tour was about to embark on a sight-seeing flight from the 30th Street Heliport and enter the same densely populated airspace, flying Southbound over the Hudson while climbing.

The helicopter pilot was climbing South in a blue helicopter that blended perfectly with the Hudson below while Steve, flying the Saratoga, was headed South.

As the aircraft converged, the helicopter gaining altitude and the fixed wing no longer in a position to see the helicopter climbing, they either collided or the downwash from the helicopter literally sucked the air out from under the airplane’s right wing. The right wing of the aircraft contacted one of the rotor blades and was immediately sliced off. The helicopter rotor, now hopelessly unbalanced, tore off, shaft and all, and the two doomed aircraft fell to the river below.

Recently received video of the crash shows that the Altman Piper was struck from the left and below by the helicopter. The video clearly establishes that Altman had the right of way as aircraft to the right have the right of way. The helicopter just crossed right in front of the Piper and it appears that unsuccessful evasive action by Altman may have preceded the collision by an instant.

Anyone who has ever flown a low wing Piper knows the visibility limitations forward and down. Why did this happen? The answer is simple. First New York must make its radar separation services readily available to VFR traffic because the concept of “see and avoid” just doesn’t work. Second, the question must be answered whether the helicopter company pilots communicate their intentions on any frequency to warn other aircraft to look for them before they climb up into the stream of traffic. There is a frequency 123.05 for this purpose that is published on the Aeronautical Charts but it is a very crowded and often garbled frequency rendering it useless for traffic avoidance. Last, the choice of blue for the color of Liberty’s helicopters makes no sense given the crowded environment in which they operate.

Nine people dead for nothing but the FAA’s failure, once again, to do its job. The FAA failed to regulate the Helicopter tour operators so they would announce their intentions or be in contact with air traffic control. The FAA failed to assure clear procedures for aircraft entering the stream of VFR traffic South and Northbound in this narrow corridor. In short the FAA created a free for all and this time instead of the helicopters crashing into themselves, which the usually do, they took another airplane along.

The media’s talking heads are frightening in their complete ignorance of both the problem and the solution. Sometimes it’s more frightening to hear them talk than it is to know the facts because they have exposure that is far greater than their uninformed views deserve. I have flown this route many, many times. It is safe when pilots fly in a straight path at a single altitude until they transit the area. It is unsafe when others climb into the flow of traffic unannounced and with no air traffic control whatsoever.

Rules of flight must exist in this corridor. Aircraft and helicopters travelling North must hug the Manhattan shore at an altitude of 600 feet or below. Aircraft and helicopters travelling South should hug the New Jersey shore and be no lower than 700 feet and below 1100 feet. All aircraft transiting the area should be talking to someone who is an air traffic controller. All aircraft climbing or descending should be required to be in positive air traffic control.

Hopefully changes for the better will come out of this. I doubt it will happen because the FAA never does anything when a few innocent people die, it waits until an airliner dies before public pressure forces it to make changes.

This accident and the unspeakable misery it has caused nine families is unforgiveable.

– Arthur Alan Wolk

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