Archive for August, 2009

Hudson River Crash a Tragic Fluke

August 10, 2009
Tourist photos of the collision of a helicopter and a small plane over the Hudson River in New York on Saturday(Screen grab via Fox News)

Tourist photos of the collision of a helicopter and a small plane over the Hudson River in New York on Saturday(Screen grab via Fox News)

The pilots simply never saw each other.

Steven Altman had just departed Teterboro Airport in his single-engine airplane – his brother and nephew aboard. They were heading to the Hudson River flight corridor – and eventually out the mouth of New York Harbor toward the Jersey shore. As he reached the river, he turned his low-wing plane steeply to the right to begin hugging the west bank of the Hudson – the proper place for southbound traffic.

At precisely that moment, Jeremy Clarke took off from the 30th Street Heliport in a Eurocopter carrying five tourists from Italy. As he gained altitude, he flew across the river, and turned to the left to fly down to the Statue of Liberty.

As they converged, Altman would have been in the left front seat of his plane looking to his right – while Clarke was in the right front seat of the chopper – looking left.

The low wing on Altman’s airplane would have completely obscured the chopper. In a climbing left turn, Clarke’s view of the airplane would have been obscured by the rotors above him.

There is a long history of so called “low-wing/high-wing” mid air collisions. Most of the time, they happen near smaller airports that do not have a control tower.

In this case it happened a very busy slice of the sky – the virtual tunnel for airplane traffic over the Hudson River.

Those of us who fly through this airspace are responsible for seeing and avoiding each other. There are no air traffic controllers serving as traffic cops here.

And before you get yourself all spun up about this (I am talkin’ to you Sen. Schumer!), before this tragic crash there has never been a mid air collision like this in New York City.

Over the years, many thousands of airplane and helicopters have successfully and safely plied their way through this corridor of airspace wherein the responsibility for collision avoidance rests entirely in the cockpit.

And the real truth is it makes flying in the New York City airspace safer – because all the aircraft who fly in this zone are not taxing already maxed out air traffic controllers.

If tour helicopters had to check in with ATC every time they alighted with a load of tourists, the system would bog down in a hurry.

It is NOT the Wild West up there – as one congressional staffer suggests. Not by a long shot. There are rules that pilots follow and the safety record speaks for itself.

It is a busy place with a lot of traffic and you have to pay attention all the time. But that’s New York for you. When two cars collide in Midtown Manhattan, do we instantly insist the traffic laws be changed?

The odds of this accident happening were long indeed. If either pilot had taken off five or ten seconds later (or earlier) it would not have happened.

It is a terrible tragedy and we all mourn the needless loss of life. But it was, statistically, a black swan – and not the result of some endemic, systemic flaw. Let’s resist the temptation to try and fix a system that is not broken. More often than not, the unintended consequences simply make matters worse.


Beware the Aviation Demagogues

August 9, 2009

Politicians who know nothing about aviation will soon be flocking to microphones -like moths to a porch light – demanding the FAA shut down the corridor – the virtual tunnel of airspace – that allows small airplanes to fly unfettered through the busy New York City airspace to either savor the sights or simply save a lot of time.

Such is the nature of rhetoric in the days following a spectacular fatal aviation accident. But all the uninformed posturing and demagoguery will overlook two very important points.  1) Systems devised by humans will never be perfect. 2) The system in place to avoid accidents over the Hudson is extremely effective and safe.

Over the years, thousands and thousands of airplanes and helicopters have safely plied their way through the Hudson River Corridor. The system sounds like anarchy, but it is extremely effective. Pilots tune in the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency of 123.05 MHz and start listening carefully – and talking quickly. They announce their location, altitude and direction using easily identifiable landmarks as points of reference.

I typically begin a flight down the corridor with a call like this: “Hudson Traffic, Cirrus 122CV – George Washington Bridge, southbound, Jersey side, one thousand feet, Hudson.” As I fly down, I keep announcing my location as I reach various landmarks.

The system works well – so long as pilots are tuned in and talking. In addition to making radio calls, it is very important pilots keep their head “out of the cockpit” – looking out the windows constantly for traffic. I prefer to fly this route with another pilot in the right seat – two sets of eyes are always better than one.

Shutting down this tunnel to small airplanes would mean pilots would have to call air traffic controllers – “New York Approach” – in order to fly the route. This means these busy people will be forced to manage even more traffic than they already do. Will that be safer? I suspect not.

Let’s not forget current system is already extremely safe – and this accident looks more like an unfortunate, improbable fluke that put two aircraft on a collision course – each unable to see the other. It was a terribly sad, one in a million event that should not invite a reflexive, uninformed regulatory response.

Seeing the Lady: Fun but Risky

August 8, 2009

The Statue of Liberty from the air above the Hudson River (Miles O'Brien)

Flying low and slow over the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey to “see the Lady” is a real eyeful and a ton of fun – but it is neither for the faint of heart nor the foolhardy aviators.

There is nothing inherently unsafe about it – but it does require a pilot’s full attention.

There are a few ways to do this. One way involves calling air traffic controllers who manage traffic in the New York City region. You tell them where you are – and what you would like to do. If they are not too busy, they will clear you in to the so-called “Class B” airspace – usually at an altitude of about 2,500 – 3,000 feet. – or about twice as high as the Empire State Building.

This is probably the safest way to fly the river, but it is not as fun as going lower through the Visual Flight Rules (VFR) corridor. You can fly into that corridor without checking in with controllers manning “New York Approach” so long as you remain below 1,100 feet, stay near the river’s edges and fly no faster than 140 knots (160 mph) The rules are fairly straightforward, but it is extremely important that pilots become familiar with them in advance – and stick to the procedures. (more…)

The Ides of Augustine upon us

August 5, 2009

endeavourThe Blue Ribbon commission that is taking a hard look at what is next for NASA will soon be serving up a menu of alternatives for the Obama Administration to ponder.

The group, headed by respected aerospace veteran Norm Augustine has been working long and hard on a tight deadline. Now is not the time to dally. The shuttle fleet is seven launches (or one mishap) away from mothballs. And, in order to keep Americans in space for the next five years (at least) NASA will be forced to buy seats on rockets built by its former space adversary – Russia. What a difference forty years makes.

The Obama Administration created the Augustine to see if there was a way to shrink the gap between the last shuttle flight and the first launch of whatever will be the American ride to space in the future.

The Augustinistes are not supposed to write a single prescription – but instead offer a menu of options.

At first they were told to keep those choices within the current NASA budget constraints. But the group quickly determined that was a fool’s errand – as a dearth of funding makes even the current concept and design for a return to the moon unattainable. So they asked for permission to color outside the lines – and we will soon see how vividly they have drawn up a picture for America’s future in space.

Should we return to the moon? Or bypass the been-there-done-that Earth satellite and simply aim to put men and women on Mars? Is a mission to a near Earth asteroid a good intermediate choice? Or are we so strapped we should simply be content to remain in low earth orbit? Or maybe we should get out of the piloted space business altogether…

First a word about the shuttle. It is too late in the game to extend the shuttle era in any meaningful way. You can put a fork in that decision. Of course anything is possible if you throw enough money at it – but it would cost too much to put the full shuttle processing apparatus back together again.

There is one extra external fuel tank – so it is possible NASA could add one more shuttle mission to the manifest. You could also shorten the gap by changing the sunset date for the shuttles. As it stands now, the shuttle fleet is supposed stop flying by the end of 2010 – no matter how many missions squeeze their way in between the thunderstorms, hurricanes, leaking valves, frayed wires, loose pip pins or voracious woodpeckers which all have, at one time or another, kept orbiters anchored to launch pad 39A/B.

The commission will give the Obama administration the option to simply fly out the remaining shuttle manifest to complete the space station – without a certain end date. This will mean the shuttles could keep flying to the end of 2011 – or maybe even longer. Frankly, this makes a lot more sense to me from a safety perspective. Much better not to be tempted to push the old birds past the breaking point in pursuit of a post-it note on a calendar.

That said, keeping the shuttles flying at any rate at all involves about a $3 billion dollar annual cover charge. If the Peter the shuttle robs Paul the new vehicle the gap will simply stay the same – but move to the right.

So what about the next vehicle? For that matter, what about the next destination? Should the Obama administration “go big or go home” in space? More on that next time.