Genav and helos were slowest to recover

 - May 5, 2008, 11:39 AM

When the call went out in those early, panicky hours of the crisis that’s collectively come to be called “9/11,” some 4,500 aircraft were airborne in U.S. airspace. The vast majority of them were Part 121 airliners; this was, after all, the bustling Tuesday morning of what no one knew would be the last day of business as usual for a long time. An estimated 10 percent of those aircraft aloft at the time were general aviation/non-corporate, and for them the events of the days and weeks to follow were the stuff of chaos.

“Imagine driving along the Interstate highway system somewhere and suddenly being ordered to pull over immediately at the next exit, wherever that may be, and told to stay there until further notice,” said one light-twin pilot, an AOPA member who requested anonymity. For most grounded light airplanes, the airports to which they were diverted had at least rudimentary amenities. And while motel rooms might be available, capacity was scarce, forcing some doubling up.

More critical was the morning after. With restrictions still in place, rental cars became scarce as stranded owners opted to drive to their destinations. As restrictions overall stayed in effect over the following three days, the GA fleet stayed grounded. The only aircraft overhead were military and government. Only days later, when the grosser restrictions were repealed, did many owners make it back to where their aircraft had been, in effect, impounded and they were able to ferry them home through the rubble of what amounted to an airspace battlefield, riddled with newly established temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), many of which survive to this day. (For a new federal service providing up-to-the-minute TFR information, log on to

Just what was the total effect of September 11 on owner-flown general aviation? Even AOPA, so often so accomplished at such quantification, refuses even to try. “There were just too many issues in play,” admitted spokesman Warren Morningstar, “and the impact of the grounding and subsequent restrictions on general aviation’s overall bottom line is just too intangible.”

What hasn’t been intangible is the damage the sheer horror of that morning inflicted. “The real damage has been in the public’s perception of aviation,” said Morningstar. “Those images of the airplanes slamming into the towers are powerful, and the damage they caused to the collective psyche is going to take a long time to go away. Previously, Americans were not used to looking up at the bottoms of airplanes and being afraid.”

Damage in Higher Circles

Even more telling is the damage wrought to the perception of general aviation in higher and more official circles. At the height of the crisis, decisions were being made in the White House situation room (or some such “undisclosed location” as the security parlance termed it) by Cabinet-level and even more senior officials for whom the niceties of terminology separating general, corporate and airline aviation were lost. “For them, airplanes were airplanes and they didn’t want to see them over certain areas of the country, period,” said one alphabet organization staffer who was allowed in the room. “These people simply were not in a frame of mind to listen to the differences.”

Certainly the longest-term hurt was inflicted on the commercial helicopter business, so much of which operates in close proximity to the nation’s urban areas, providing traffic watch and newsgathering services. Following September 11 these two usage groups fought a months-long battle with FAA officials forced to enforce new rules the meanings of which not even their writers were sure of.

Within a few days of September 11, airborne ENG operations were banned within an 18-nm radius of some 30 cities nationwide. In some areas such as the “ground zero” smoldering ruins of what had been the World Trade Center and was at the time the mass grave of more than 3,000 human beings, feelings for and against the closures ran high. Much of the public decried the press scrutiny as ghoulish sensationalism. Media proclaimed the “public’s right to know,” while security officials set up a “no fly” zone that effectively barred rotorcraft from the entire New York metro area. For weeks the security officials won– that is until some enterprising ENG operators found that Part 135 flights transiting the no-fly zones were permitted. Instantly, newscopters bearing perfunctorially revenue- generating passengers or, in some cases, small-package freight deliveries began flying through the most sensitive TFRs. While they were still no longer free to “cruise for news,” these ingenious benders of the law were able to gain access to formerly banned airspace to perform routine highway traffic reports (a service essential in crowded urban areas and one sorely missed) and photograph any targets of news opportunity along the way.

Ironically, it took another air disaster to clear up the restrictions created by another. In November, an American Airlines Airbus A300-600 suffered a catastrophic failure almost immediately after takeoff from JFK International, crashing into a residential neighborhood in the Rockaways, killing all 265 on board. No-fly rules kept helicopters grounded dozens of miles from the site, not only interfering with the public’s right to know, but also with the movement of emergency personnel. “Officials found on that morning that they, too, depend on newscopters for access to what’s going on just as the general public does,” said New York Metro area ENG journalist John del Giorno. “All they had was a picture of a thick plume of smoke climbing skyward. A picture taken from a remote video camera mounted on the Empire State Building a dozen miles away. That’s the morning the officials realized they needed better eyes. The morning they realized that everybody needs to see what’s going on.”

The Other Cost of September 11

Not surprisingly, the no-fly zones around sensitive metropolitan areas began to shrink, but at a time and rate that has proved fatal for dozens of small rotorcraft operators and flight schools around the country. Evidence as to the total damage done to an industry that traditionally operates with little or no monetary margin is still anecdotal; however, a much more substantive picture should emerge with the 2002 edition of HAI’s Operator’s Survey to be published in early November.
With what HAI claims is an unprecedented amount of data in from the field and currently under compilation by Conklin & de Decker, an accurate picture of the damage wrought to an industry ill-equipped to absorb it should emerge. “We’ve been hearing about flight schools and small operators in bad shape for months,” said HAI president Roy Resavage. “When we get the numbers crunched on this survey, we’ll know for sure. Sadly, I don’t think it’s going to be a story that will be much fun to read.”

At press time, the only major September 11-imposed restriction in effect is the one in place around Washington, D.C., extending in a rough 13-nm radius from the DCA VOR. Its effect has been not only to bar all general aviation air traffic from within the DCA TFR but also to spell the end of the Washington heliport, a vest-pocket site on the Anacostia River that was just beginning to see some black ink on its ledger when the dark day of September 11 arrived.