Hudson River Crash a Tragic Fluke

by
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.

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14 Responses to “Hudson River Crash a Tragic Fluke”

  1. johnniepal Says:

    Hopefully persuasive people like you will keep the good word out there and the big picture will be seen by those bound to find fault in the system.

  2. patimc Says:

    Makes perfect sense. The lack of controllers has the opposite effect. Eye opening piece.

  3. coma Says:

    I have disagree with your assessment of the state of reality in the corridor. If pilots only had to contend with seeing and avoiding other aircraft that were flying at 1000ft up and down the Hudson, then I’d be right there with you.

    However, given the amount of helicopter traffic constantly climbing and descending through that airspace, combined with the shear density of the traffic there, I think the situation is unreasonably precarious. Consider the fact that helicopter traffic is apparently significantly more abundant over the Hudson these days as a result of the East River closure.

    For that reason, I don’t think the lack of mid-airs in the past can be used as a track record for the future.

    Perhaps a relatively simple change that could be made is the introduction of a SECOND corridor, above the existing one, specifically for aircraft transitioning the area. This would involve raising the bravo floor, though.

    In lieu of that, I think fixed wing aircraft transitioning the area should do it in the Bravo on the existing LGA/TWR Bravo freqs.

  4. ryanbytes Says:

    It reminds me of the Bob Collins collision in Waukegan, Il. in 2000. There was a controller involved but the mixture of low wing and high wing ultimately led to the accident. The timing of it all was just right to keep either pilot from seeing the other.

  5. Fran Johns Says:

    That’s a good explanation of a sad, and flukey accident.

  6. mikek Says:

    I absolutely agree — the only thing I wonder is: would a traffic advisory system (TAS) have helped here? The Piper was an older plane, and I don’t know how updated its avionics were, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to require aircraft flying commercially in the corridor (like the helicopter was) to install TAS.

    Even if one of these two aircraft had had a good TAS system, it seems likely that they could have taken evasive action.

    My airplane is over 50 years old, and I’m installing TAS as part of a panel refit before I move it to the busy SF Bay Area.

  7. rcp727 Says:

    Hello MIles,
    Very good article.
    I appreciate the detail you put into the issues that ultimately led to this accident.
    I recently left the Paris Air Show, via a Europcopter, and proceeded to downtown Paris “VFR”. Very beautiful, but not without eyes in all directions. VFR, means VFR.
    Thanks,
    Richard Page

  8. timothyshea Says:

    Miles, when the accident happened, I looked up procedures for the Hudson corridor. They weren’t obvious. The VFR chart and procedures should be improved.

    Take a look at the New York Terminal Area Chart. This is what most pilots will use. It has a large-scale view of the entire NY area on the front. The heliport in question is shown (tiny amidst a lot of clutter). You can’t see much detail on the Hudson. Clearly this chart is not suitable for navigating the corridor. (Front of chart: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2437/3805486160_c518b5c45b_o.jpg)

    On the back is a small helicopter inset. The remaining ¾ of the chart is blank. (Back of chart: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3441/3804638279_25b5714270_o.jpg) This is what pilots will use when flying the Hudson corridor, because the scale & detail are appropriate. However The actual corridor isn’t shown (only a small part of the southern end). The heliport in question isn’t shown. Despite the fact that 30,000 tour flights a year depart from it (average about 80/day, probably double that on nice days). Routes & altitudes typically flown by the tour operators aren’t shown. Despite the fact that they tend to be repetitive and predictable. Few general aviation reporting points are shown. The proper frequency is given, and some mention of helicopter activity down around the Statue of Liberty at 500 feet is made. The accident occurred much farther north, around 1,100, based on the radar track. (Detailed image, large: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3130/3804777444_f5f11159d0_o.jpg)

    There are many “corridors” in the US, including one over Los Angeles International, and one along the coast adjacent. They serve a similar function: Allow safe movement of VFR traffic, separating it from controlled / commercial traffic.

    Contrast this with the Niagara Falls procedures. General Aviation traffic flies a defined route, remaining above 3,500 ft. Helicopter tours remain below 3,500 ft. Everyone talks on the same frequency. It’s pretty simple. (Chart: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3596/3586096482_a9be0234ee_o.jpg)

    VFR flight under ATC in the NY area is possible. One can either (a) enter the Class B airspace under ATC control, or (b) request VFR advisories from ATC when outside it (e.g. when flying over, under, or adjacent). The NY controllers are competent and professional. But often very busy. When I overflew NY at 11,500 ft (3 weeks ago) I was on VFR advisories. However as I approached NY, the controllers had to drop me. They were too busy. The frequency was non-stop. Controllers must prioritize. Overload them, and they can make mistakes too. Additional VFR traffic will add to their load.

    The NY Terminal Area chart should be improved, to show the entire Hudson corridor. Procedures for that airspace should be made simple and obvious. High-density helicopter routes (e.g. tours) should be shown, and clear radio reporting points identified. That way everyone knows what to do, and expect.

    • timothyshea Says:

      Miles, these links are broken because the software included the closing “)” in the URL. Corrected links are below.

  9. timothyshea Says:

    Miles, when the accident happened, I looked up procedures for the Hudson corridor. They weren’t obvious. The VFR chart and procedures should be improved.

    Take a look at the New York Terminal Area Chart. This is what most pilots will use. It has a large-scale view of the entire NY area on the front. The heliport in question is shown (tiny amidst a lot of clutter). You can’t see much detail on the Hudson. Clearly this chart is not suitable for navigating the corridor. (Front of chart: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2437/3805486160_c518b5c45b_o.jpg )

    On the back is a small helicopter inset. The remaining ¾ of the chart is blank. (Back of chart: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3441/3804638279_25b5714270_o.jpg ) This is what pilots will use when flying the Hudson corridor, because the scale & detail are appropriate. However The actual corridor isn’t shown (only a small part of the southern end). The heliport in question isn’t shown. Despite the fact that 30,000 tour flights a year depart from it. Routes & altitudes flown by the tour operators aren’t shown. Few general aviation reporting points are shown. The proper frequency is given, and some mention of helicopter activity down around the Statue of Liberty at 500 feet is made. The accident occurred farther north, around 1,100. (Detailed image, large: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3130/3804777444_f5f11159d0_o.jpg )

    There are many “corridors” in the US, including one over Los Angeles International, and one along the coast adjacent. They allow safe movement of VFR traffic, and separate it from controlled / commercial traffic.

    Contrast this with the Niagara Falls procedures. General Aviation flies a defined route, remaining above 3,500 ft. Helicopter tours remain below 3,500 ft. Everyone talks on the same frequency. It’s pretty simple. (Chart: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3596/3586096482_a9be0234ee_o.jpg )

    VFR flight under ATC in the NY area is possible. One can either (a) enter the Class B airspace under ATC control, or (b) request VFR advisories from ATC when outside it (e.g. when flying over, under, or adjacent). The NY controllers are competent and professional. But often very busy. When I overflew NY at 11,500 ft (3 weeks ago) I was on VFR advisories. However as I approached NY, the controllers had to drop me. They were too busy. The frequency was non-stop. Controllers must prioritize. Overload them, and they can make mistakes too. Additional VFR traffic will add to their load.

    The NY Terminal Area chart should be improved, to show the entire Hudson corridor. Procedures for that airspace should be made simple and obvious. High-density helicopter routes (e.g. tours) should be shown, and clear radio reporting points identified. That way everyone knows what to do, and expect.

  10. 4timking Says:

    Miles;

    If I am not mistaken your Cirrus is equipped with a Ballistic Recovery System. Had an aircraft like yours been involved in this incident would there have been enough time and altitude to safely deploy it?

  11. Piloticians | NYCAviation.com | Planespotting and Aviation Photography, Breaking Airline News, Aviation Discussion Says:

    […] he is pushing for the Hudson River airspace to be controlled by ATC from here on out, although I along with others, feel that this would add to the workload of already busy and stressed ATCers, no? There is also a […]

  12. rockyinlaw Says:

    Mr O’Brien — Do you have any information or an opinion on the recent news (see link below)? Were they just sleeping and if so, what does that mean to travelers in general? The GPS in a car will tell you when you’ve reached your destination; why don’t planes have such an alarm/notification system? — Rocky

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