9/11 helo aftermath: ‘normal’ but not quite

 - October 9, 2007, 4:24 AM

It has been just over two years since four hijacked jetliners stopped the world in its tracks on what was for residents of the New York City and Washington metro areas the beginning of a sparkling late summer day. For 2,801 workers in Manhattan’s World Trade Center and aboard the two jetliners that struck the Twin Towers, the 182 workers, passengers and aircrew who would die in the Pentagon attack, and the 44 passengers who died in a Pennsylvania farm field where their battle for control of their hijacked jetliner ended, this sun-drenched morning would be their last.
Like a huge stone dropped into a calm pond, the impact of this atrocity rippled out to encircle the world for months and years to come. The pain will probably never go away, not as long as there are people to remember.

For those in aviation, it was a day of particular horror as familiar objects of beauty and grace, of utility and wonder, were turned into weapons of mass murder. Overriding these emotions were cool, clear thoughts of aviation’s responsibility, some might even say complicity, in the disasters. Fortunately, cool-headed professionals ruled the day.

It’s always gratifying when emergency equipment does its job and does it well in a real emergency. When the word went out from the FAA’s national airspace headquarters to “clear the skies,” that’s just what happened. More than 4,000 aircraft were airborne when the order was given, and efficacious handling by ATC got them down–quickly if not conveniently. Major hubs such as Denver International received so much traffic so quickly that tarmac became scarce and hard-packed, sun-dried prairie sod had to suffice. The trim choreography of embarkation and debarkation that’s become the norm at big airports instead resembled the floor of a child’s playroom–airplanes scattered here and there but safely down.

What was true to Part 121 aviation also held true for Part 135 and 91 operations as well. Business travelers found themselves stranded in the truest sense of the term. “When the word came out to land, they meant ‘Now!’” recalled one corporate pilot. “You couldn’t come back at ATC with ‘Just another 45 minutes, please. We’re almost at our destination.’”

An accelerated playback of a video recording of the FAA’s nationwide ATC plot on the morning of 9/11 shows the bustling airspace of a busy country, quite possibly the heaviest level of civil flying routinely conducted over a modern nation as measured in terms of airplanes per square mile. The eastern seaboard is a solid green, a seething mass of transponder returns. Elsewhere in the nation, airplanes form lines ebbing and flowing toward major hubs, clustering around those termini like bees.

When the word was given to clear the skies, the effect was like pulling the plug from a bathtub. Within an hour almost everything was on the ground or on its way there. Ninety minutes after the call to ground, only a few stragglers remained airborne.
Offshore, hundreds of inbound airplanes returned to their country of origin.

The lid was down and it was to stay down for an unprecedented 48 hours, after which it was lifted in a way intended, perhaps, to do the “greatest good for the greatest number” but in a way that also left many business aviation operations in and around America’s busiest hubs grounded in the midst of plenty. With the airlines slashing schedules and passengers boarding what flights remained and the entire system proceeding at a snail’s pace, thanks to newly reinforced security measures, demand for charter skyrocketed. At the same time, the supply shrank, with many charter airplanes trapped inside the newly established “no fly” zones set up throughout the country.

The months to come were to witness, if not a return to normal, the creation of a new form of operational reality. New acronyms, new government agencies, a rainbow of security status levels, a couple of new wars and a sort of pop-pop-pop crescendo of terror attacks in countries other than the U.S.

Today, two years after the unimaginable happened before our disbelieving eyes, the National Airspace System is more or less the way it was, the most enduring remnant being the frequent clampdowns on airspace surrounding the President’s travels. New security measures meander their ways through the congressional and regulatory agency approval processes.

Status Quo, Sort of
Of the two cities attacked, the airspace over one has been restored to essentially its pre-attack status. New York City is pretty much what it was pre-9/11. Those that tried to use Big Apple airspace in the days immediately after the attacks had to put up with not only irate security and FAA officials but also the occasional Air Force F-15. Fighter jets, in pairs or alone, were frequent sights in the quieted airspace over D.C. and New York.

No-fly zones extended out from New York in a roughly triangular pattern as determined by the location of the metro area’s three major airports: La Guardia, JFK and Newark. Distance varied, as did the types of aircraft permitted into those zones. Not surprisingly, airlines got first crack at access. Special transponder codes worked as the callsign of the day.

Today, ADIZ areas remain in effect only in the D.C. area, with ATC practices now pretty much back to their pre-9/11 status in and around New York. Before operating the aircraft in an ADIZ, flight crews need to obtain a code from ATC. The aircraft’s transponder must continuously transmit the ATC-issued code while the aircraft is operating in either ADIZ.

Additionally, before operating an aircraft in an ADIZ, pilots must file their flight plan with an AFSS, must activate their flight plan before departure or entering the ADIZ and must close their flight plan upon landing or leaving the ADIZ. Parts 91, 101, 103, 105, 125, 133, 135, 137 flight operations are prohibited within the Washington, D.C., flight restricted zone (or FRZ), the 15-nm inner radius of the ADIZ, which contains the so-called “DC3,” a group of three Maryland and Virginia general aviation reliever airports located within the DCA ADIZ. Part 135 flights among them or in and out of the ADIZ via those airports are permitted, provided those aircraft don’t try to leave and then re-enter the FRZ on the same flight plan.
One of the DC3, Hyde Park, can accommodate light business jets, offering creative business aviators a way into the Washington area that bypasses DCA’s total ban on Part 91 and Part 135 operations.

It should be noted that the former New York ADIZ was the New York Class B veil. This meant not only Class B airspace but extended to the limits of the mode-C “rings,” or 30 nm, from the centers of Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark Airports. The vertical limits of this ADIZ were from the surface to 18,000 feet.

Big Apple airspace is helicopter airspace, with the city one of the busiest rotorcraft venues in the world. The heavy restrictions in the post-9/11 days put a virtual end to aerial sightseeing, one of the area’s biggest helo flight-time consumers. Also downed for all practical purposes were corporate helicopters and TV and helicopter operations. Some enterprising local operators found ways to circumvent the regs, which barred them from “cruising for news” in Manhattan airspace, although a few of those were met by unamused FAA representatives upon landing. Much bluster resulted in no real punishment, however.

River Corridor Reopened
New York airspace is so much back to normal that even the so-called Hudson River corridor has been opened. The corridor is a VFR-only “tunnel” under the region’s Class B airspace allowing sunny-day aviators a chance to cruise down the broad, shining river and feast their eyes on the most famous skyline in the world (now memorably disfigured) provided they keep to the right and fly no higher than 1,100 feet agl. Long a favorite with weekend pilots, the corridor terminates in the airspace below the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in lower New York Bay, extending along Manhattan’s west side to the end of Class B airspace above New York on the Hudson.

“From the operations point of view, everything is pretty much the way it was before 9/11,” said Matt Zuccarro, community relations spokesman for the Eastern Region Helicopter Council and former HAI chairman. “There’s an increased emphasis on security, but that’s as it should be. On the helicopter side of the business, operations in New York are doing well. We’re just now coming off a busy summer, with no accidents and some good news on the heliport front.”

The “good news” to which Zuccarro was referring is an unprecedented level of stability on the Big Apple’s metropolitan heliport scene, a business beset by a politically formidable, well funded local New York anti-noise, anti-helicopter lobby. The group’s stated goal is the closure of all three Manhattan heliports and the total banishment of all but public-service helos from New York airspace.

Some of the good news is evidence of the city’s commitment to helicopter aviation that came in the form of the signing of a 10-year lease between the city of New York and MacQuarry Aviation, a corporation that recently bought rights to run the East 34th Street Heliport away from American Port Systems, the heliport’s long-time operator. Often threatened with closure, the East 34th facility, convenient to midtown Manhattan, now operates in more-or-less cordial relations with its neighbors, thanks in large part to its 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekday hours, no operations at all over the weekend and no air-tour operations.

Over on the other side of town, Air Pegasus’ West 30th Street heliport recently dressed up its rather dowdy appearance with a fresh set of helideck lights, a bold move considering the fact that the heliport has theoretically been threatened with eviction for decades. Originally intended to be a temporary facility, East 30th Street was slated for demolition when work on the now long abandoned West Side Highway development program began.

A combination of financial and environmental considerations put the kibosh on the highway program, and West 30th has soldiered on, making money for Air Pegasus’ major subsidiary, Liberty Helicopters, the largest and most successful air-tour operator in the Big Apple. The landing fees Liberty pays at East 30th amount to money out of one pocket and into another for Air Pegasus, whereas the fees it pays for air-tour access to the Wall Street Heliport, like those paid by every other user, go for upkeep and into the coffers of both the FAA and the city of New York, which jointly administer the comfortable, state-of-the-art facility located on the very southern tip of Manhattan. The operations agreement between the city and FAA will expire in 2006, after which ownership of the heliport will revert to the city. It is expected that the city will place the facility up for management, with Air Pegasus often mentioned as a probable operator.

Down in D.C.
The airspace lockdown is much more in effect in Washington, the all-too-often forgotten “other target” of that dreadful day. A 30-mile ADIZ still extends out from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA).

“That’s no sightseeing, no corporate helicopters, no air tours, no Part 135, no business aircraft into DCA, no nothing,” groused HAI president Roy Resavage. “This is the only venue left from 9/11 that’s still administered as if the situation was unchanged since then. It’s so sad and so ironic that the town with the largest number of aviation alphabet organizations is the only one with airspace still under significant 9/11 restrictions.”

Meanwhile, Part 121 operations continue at congressman-convenient DCA.
In an inspiring act of faith that things will change, software millionaire and helicopter airline developer Steve Walker has taken over operation of the South Street heliport, a vest-pocket helistop in a tumbledown industrial neighborhood on the banks of the Anacostia River, just a few short blocks from Capitol Hill and well within the ADIZ. The only income Walker realizes from the facility is the trickle of fuel sales and landing fees from transient government rotorcraft.

Walker, whose dream it is to operate the first successful Northeast corridor helicopter airline linking Boston, New York and Washington, is holding on to the small site with the goal of making the riverside site into one of his airline’s D.C. terminals. In recent months Walker has been gradually acquiring helicopter operations rights to sites located all along the Northeast corridor.