FAA proposes changes to Hudson River airspace

 - September 30, 2009, 12:29 PM

The FAA has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) modifying the airspace over the Hudson River in the aftermath of the August 8 midair between a Liberty Helicopters sightseeing AS 350 and a Piper PA-32R-300, killing all nine people on the
two aircraft.

The safety enhancements in the September 16 NPRM would restructure the airspace; mandate pilot operating rules; create a new entry point into the Hudson River airspace from Teterboro, N.J.; standardize New York area charts; and develop new training for pilots, air traffic controllers and businesses that operate helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes in the area.

One of the most significant changes, if adopted, would divide the airspace into altitude corridors that separate aircraft flying over the river from those operating to and from local heliports and seaplane bases.

The NPRM establishes the New York Class B Airspace Hudson River and East River Exclusion Special Flight Rules Area. This new exclusionary zone would establish a uniform floor for Class B airspace over the Hudson at 1,300 feet, which would also serve as the ceiling for the exclusionary zone.

Between 1,300 and 2,000 feet, aircraft would be required to operate in the Class B airspace under VFR, but under positive air traffic control, and to communicate on the appropriate air traffic frequency. Between 1,000 and 1,300 feet, it would require aircraft flying VFR to use a common radio frequency for the Hudson River. Aircraft operating below 1,000 feet would use the same radio frequency.

New pilot operating practices would require pilots to use specific radio frequencies for the Hudson River and the East River; would set speeds at 140 knots or less; and would require pilots to turn on anticollision devices, position or navigation equipment and landing lights. They would also require pilots to announce when they enter the area and to report their aircraft description, location, direction and altitude.

Existing common practices that take pilots along the west shore of the river when they are southbound and along the east shore when they are northbound would become mandatory. In addition, pilots would be required to have charts available and to be familiar with the airspace rules.

“The New York Airspace Task Force chartered on August 14 developed a comprehensive series of recommendations that we plan to implement as quickly as possible,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. “These steps will significantly enhance safety in this busy area and create crystal-clear rules for all of the pilots who operate there.”

The FAA also intends to propose standardized procedures for fixed-wing aircraft leaving Teterboro Airport (TEB) to enter the Class B airspace over the Hudson River or the exclusionary zone. If an aircraft plans to enter the Class B airspace, TEB controllers would request approval from Newark Liberty International Airport before the aircraft takes off and is authorized to climb to 1,500 feet. Aircraft that want to enter the VFR exclusionary zone would be directed by a special route over the George Washington Bridge.

Comments on the NPRM are due by October 16. The FAA expects to complete and publish any changes in time to have them in effect by November 19, so that they can be incorporated on new, standardized aeronautical charts that will replace existing charts. The charts will highlight the Class B VFR corridor, encouraging more pilots to exercise the option to fly over the Hudson River under air traffic control, instead of entering the congested exclusionary zone.

Finally, the FAA intends to develop training programs specifically tailored for pilots, air traffic controllers and FBOs to increase awareness of the options available in the Hudson River airspace, and better develop plans that enhance safety for the intended flight.

“We have reinforced how important it is to follow the recommended procedures and maintain professional conduct until we put the mandatory measures in place,” said Babbitt. “These new safety steps incorporate the collective experience of pilots who fly in that airspace as well as our own air traffic controllers and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. We all want the skies over New York to be as safe as they can be.”

The FAA chartered the New York Airspace Task Force on August 14 and proposed actions based on the group’s August 28 report. The NTSB issued independent recommendations on August 27 that were not used in the development of the task force’s safety enhancements. The FAA said its proposed actions meet or exceed the NTSB’s recommendations.

At a hearing before the House aviation subcommittee on September 16, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman testified that shortly after the Piper took off from Teterboro Airport, a controller there handed off the airplane to nearby Newark Airport. During the handoff, the controller instructed the pilot to contact Newark and gave him the radio frequency.

But ATC recordings show the frequency the pilot read back was incorrect, she told lawmakers, and there is no indication that any controller heard the incorrect readback or attempted to correct it. A preliminary review shows the pilot never contacted Newark controllers, Hersman said.

The FAA has placed the Teterboro controller and a supervisor on leave pending an investigation.