Midair raises concerns about VFR corridor over Hudson

 - August 28, 2009, 7:19 AM

New York’s airspace could be changing. The Hudson River VFR corridor came under fresh and vociferous political attack in the wake of the August 8 fatal midair between a Piper PA-32R piston single and a Liberty Helicopters Eurocopter AS 350BA. The accident killed nine. Following the crash, the FAA announced that it is studying possible changes to the airspace rules in the area and said that a Teterboro tower air traffic controller handling the Piper and his supervisor have been placed on administrative leave.

At a press conference on August 10, a group of local politicians led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) denounced the FAA’s “Wild West approach” to regulating the airspace, and city council member Gale Brewer demanded a ban on helicopter tour flights in the area. Nadler said, “It is unconscionable that the FAA permits unregulated flights in crowded airspace in a major metropolitan area.” He called for mandatory TCAS on all U.S. GA aircraft and compulsory flight plans for every aircraft using the Hudson corridor regardless of altitude. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a licensed fixed-wing and helicopter pilot, defended the corridor, calling it important to tourism, but said he was open to increased regulation of the airspace.

By August 14 it became clear that the accident had the potential for long-lasting, and perhaps adverse, effects on New York’s two river VFR corridors that are the lifeblood of its helicopter tour industry. Helicopter tours have already been chased off two of the city’s four riverside heliports and are about to be banished from a third. New York helitour operators lifted 300,000 passengers last year and accounted for 75 percent of the area’s helicopter operations.

Controller Involvement

The accident also spotlighted tower operations at Teterboro, from where the Piper had departed. In the early days of the accident investigation, both the TEB controller handling the Piper and his supervisor were placed on administrative leave, pending disciplinary review. This was the latest of several incidents involving tower controllers at Teterboro. On July 5 the lone overnight controller on duty accidentally locked himself out of the tower cab for 43 minutes. However, there was no interruption in air traffic services for the three TEB inbound aircraft at the time. The locked-out controller immediately used his cellphone to call New York Tracon and it took responsibility for the airspace.

Investigators said that the controller handling the Piper made a personal phone call to his girlfriend concerning a dead cat while working the aircraft and that the controller’s supervisor was improperly absent from the tower at the time. So far, neither the NTSB nor the FAA has directly linked these events to the crash.

An FAA-provided timeline shows that radar detected and displayed active potential traffic conflicts with the Piper in the Hudson River Class B Exclusion Area on the suspended controller’s screen. The controller did not alert the Piper to these conflicts before handing the airplane off to Newark.

Twenty seconds before the collision, the radar data processing system detected a conflict between the two accident aircraft, which set off aural alarms and triggered a conflict alert indication on the radar displays at Teterboro and Newark. One second before the collision, the Teterboro controller terminated his personal phone call. The Piper never checked in with Newark tower.

Natca Expelled

On August 17 the NTSB formally removed the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) as a party to the investigation after the union held two press conferences criticizing the Board’s conduct of the investigation. As a condition of their participation, all parties to NTSB investigations agree not to reveal investigative information or comment publicly on it. Those duties are the preserve of the Board.

Natca disputed assertions that the accident helicopter was visible on the Teterboro controller’s screen before he handed the Piper off to Newark and took issue with an August 14 NTSB press release that stated radar detected several potential traffic conflicts ahead of the Piper, “including the accident helicopter.”

“These four words are absolutely false and have contributed to the reckless and mistaken conclusion that the Teterboro controller could have prevented this crash,” Natca president Patrick Forrey said. “Let me make this as clear as I can: our air traffic controller at Teterboro did his job. We believe he is not responsible for contributing to this tragic accident and there is nothing he could have done to prevent it from happening.”

Meanwhile, the FAA convened a special task force–the New York Airspace Working Group–to recommend, by the end of last month, safety improvements over both the Hudson and East River VFR corridors. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said the agency would review and analyze a variety of proposals to change VFR operating procedures in both the Hudson and East River corridors. Fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft currently operate in the same airspace in those corridors at or below 1,100 feet.

Among the proposals under discussion at press time was mandating different altitudes for fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in the corridors.

The FAA also issued a new notam advising pilots using the airspace to turn on their landing lights, self-announce when they enter, update their positions in the airspace on a designated CTAF (123.05), and fly at no more than 140 knots. Currently, position reporting in the corridor on the CTAF is voluntary and helicopter pilots flying there have long complained that fixed-wing aircraft do not use it. “We strongly encourage pilots to use standard practices in that area now, but it may make sense to require them,” Babbitt said.

The last New York-area midair occurred in 1983, when a Cessna 206 seaplane inbound for the East River collided with a New York City Police Bell 206A, killing four.