Helo ops suffer the worst from N.Y. airspace lockout

 - October 3, 2007, 11:11 AM

Ever since the nerve-shattering morning of September 11, the skies over Manhattan have been strangely quiet. At first it was the same sort of silence that settled over the rest of the U.S.–the product of a total operations ban that was the national airspace lockdown. The skies over the Big Apple were clear, save for police, emergency, public service and military traffic, and the ominous pall of vile-smelling smoke and dust that rose from the funeral pyre of the World Trade Center.
Later, as America’s airspace gradually came back to life, Manhattan was still blanketed by two mammoth no-fly zones. The biggest was the 25-nm proscribed zone radiating out from the VOR at JFK International, an area of enhanced Class B (ECB) airspace that more than covered the New York City metro area and then some.

In the weeks that followed, as operational exemptions into that forbidden area were granted and then the overall size of the restricted area was reduced from a 25-nm radius to 18 nm, New York-area helicopter operators found themselves beset by another crippling constraint. All three Manhattan heliports were closed to any but emergency and official traffic.

A three-nautical mile area banning all flights except those directly involved with the rescue and clearance efforts centered on the site of what had once been the World Trade Center. That meant no operations at Manhattan’s West 34th Street heliport (2.8 nm from Ground Zero), or the East 30th Street Heliport (2.9 nm away) and certainly not the Wall Street Heliport, since September 11 the headquarters for rescue and support rotorcraft operations and just over a mile from the scene of the disaster.

In a macabre way they could certainly never have anticipated or welcomed, the anti-helicopter noise forces in New York achieved all their goals at a stroke on September 11. No helicopter air tours. No corporate traffic. No electronic newsgathering (ENG). No noisy heliports.

For many local operators, the flight ban was a disaster following a disaster. One class of operation that seems likely to be banished from New York skies for many moons is the air-tour operator, long the bane (along with ENG) of the noise-conscious, politically well connected New York anti-helicopter lobby. Flying from the West 30th Street and Wall Street heliports, Liberty Helicopters ceased tour operations on that horrendous morning in September and hasn’t been back since.

Linden, N.J.-based Liberty Helicopters, the city’s major sightseeing operator, has been grounded until further notice. Owner Al Trenk did what he could for his workers, but three weeks into the crisis he was forced to furlough 100 staffers. At press time, air-tour operations were still not allowed in the area, with no word forthcoming on when tourists would once again be able to view the city’s scarred skyline from the air.

“That’s going to be a real tough sell in this environment,” conceded Jay McGowan, chief pilot for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and chairman of ERHC’s VFR committee. “The federal agencies aren’t even considering air-tour operations in airspace like this. With the vast majority of their passengers from overseas and with the minimal security of air tourism, I just can’t see them coming back any time soon.”

ENG Struggles for Access
For most of the region’s ENG helicopters, the horrific pictures they broadcast of the September 11 infamy were the last real-time news coverage they’ve been able to provide area viewers. Part 91 operators for the most part, they’ve been banned from even lifting a skid off the ground with the intention of sending pictures to their respective television stations. Even if they were allowed to fly, the area around Ground Zero had until very recently been ruled off-limits for anything other than government-authorized photography (officially justified on security and anti-terrorist grounds). In the days immediately following September 11, the same ban on Part 91 ENG operations stayed in effect throughout the nation.
One enterprising area ENG operator has managed to fly its Bell LongRanger right through the temporary flight restriction (TFR) rule structure, but got in trouble for it along the way. The LongRanger in question is owned by Cahokia, Ill.-based Helicopters Inc. under contract to ABC network flagship station WABC. Lead reporter and camera operator for WABC’s NewsCopter 7 John Del Giorno explained: “We operate under a Part 135 ticket, so we have been able to get into the air when the others haven’t.”

Based at Linden’s vest-pocket-sized airport, NewsCopter 7’s operators are making do with the ENG restriction by “filing 135 one-way to a point that gets us outside the Class B where we cover what we can,” Del Giorno said. “When the enhanced Class B airspace was shrunk from 25 nautical miles to 18, that helped a little, bringing some of the area’s key traffic chokepoints into reach, important bridges and expressway intersections. This lets us do some traffic watch stuff, augment it with some video and ‘exercise the system,’ as our news director likes to say. But of course the real news we’d like to cover is in the ECB.”

According to the ECB restrictions, ENG operations are banned within their 18-nm radius in some 30 cities nationwide, raising some first amendment issues recently addressed by Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) representatives in recent talks with the FAA. The RTNDA stressed both the “public’s right to know” and the overall public service missions ENG aircraft fulfill, points the FAA representatives reportedly conceded and agreed to forward on to their counterparts at the National Security Council, the federal agency that has the final say in national security airspace issues.

The FAA asked the media group to supply it with written information about the number of aircraft involved, the names and number of people who fly in those aircraft and whether security checks have been done on them, and more information about where the aircraft are stored and whether they are locked, monitored and guarded when not in use.

The spirit of aggressive journalism often means adopting the time-honored Navy adage of “ask forgiveness, not permission.” That’s pretty much what WABC did roughly a week after the Trade Center collapse, when the New York-area ECB had been approved for Part 135 aircraft and NewsCopter 7 was used to ferry some personnel to a destination on Long Island. As pilot Paul Smith recalls: “We made this flight on September 17, taking off from our base at Linden to Republic Airport in Farmingdale, New York. We conducted the flight according to the notam, tracon was fully advised, they all know who we are, we had passengers on board from Metro Traffic, which is one of the companies we’re contracted with, so we were Part 135-compliant. The flight plan that was approved took us right over Ground Zero. We didn’t ask for that specific routing, but when we saw where we were going to be we took some videotape of the site as we passed. When it aired, some folks in Washington got very upset.”

The finer points of aviation regulation were lost on what Smith feels sure were high-ranking personnel in the National Security Council, and NewsCopter 7 soon got a less than friendly visit from local FAA enforcement staffers who subjected the helicopter and its operators to a fine-tooth comb inspection. NewsCopter 7 was tripped up on what Smith maintains were housekeeping items and some staffers were told they would receive letters from FAA when the investigation was concluded. Just what those letters will say and whether NewsCopter 7 managed to fly through a loophole in the post-September 11 rules environment remains to be seen.

Heliports Reopen to Part 135 Only
Due in large part to lobbying efforts of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, the three-nautical mile restricted zone around the WTC was removed on October 12. This permitted the reopening of the three Manhattan heliports to Part 135 helicopters–good for the air taxi crowd but not so good for the high local concentration of Part 91 corporate operators, many of whom are ERHC members.
With the business hub of the Western world trying to get back on its feet, ERHC is pushing for, at the very least, a limited reinstitution of corporate operation into the critically important heliports of lower Manhattan.

ERHC’s strategy is similar to that being put forward by the RTNDA: provide the FAA with the identities of both the helicopters and those who will fly and travel in them, attest to the security of their hangarage and operations and have passengers and crew screened for security, in return for which they will be provided with passwords or discrete transponder codes. At press time, that proposal was in the process of being put forward to the FAA by ERHC.