Newsmakers 2009: FAA acts quickly in wake of Hudson River midair

 - December 28, 2009, 10:38 AM

On August 8, a tour helicopter climbing from a Hudson River heliport in Manhattan collided with a Piper PA-32 Lance piston single. In the ensuing crash, both aircraft were destroyed, and all nine people–three on the Piper and six on the Eurocopter AS 350BA–were killed. The incident directed a spotlight on the busy Hudson River corridor and within days local politicians were denouncing the FAA’s “Wild West approach” to the regulation of the airspace.
Further clouding the issue were irregularities in the tower operations at Teterboro Airport, where the Piper’s flight originated. Accident investigators discovered that the on-duty controller made a personal phone call while he was handling the flight and that the controller’s supervisor was absent from the tower at the time. FAA data showed that radar detected potential traffic conflicts in the Hudson River area and displayed them on the controller’s screen, but he did not alert the Piper’s pilot to these conflicts before handing off the airplane to Newark control. Twenty seconds before the crash, the radar system detected a conflict between the two aircraft and triggered aural alarms and warnings on the radar displays at both Teterboro and Newark. One second before the collision, the Teterboro controller ended his phone call.

In response to the accident, the FAA convened a special task group to recommend changes to operations in the airspace. The resulting regulations–which went into effect on November 19–state that pilots using the corridor must fly at no more than 140 knots; turn on anti-collision and position/nav lights; announce their position on specified frequencies; carry current charts and be familiar with them; and report aircraft type, position, direction and altitude at charted mandatory reporting points while flying along the New Jersey shore southbound and along the Manhattan shore flying northbound. Transiting pilots must fly between 1,000 and 1,300 feet, while local traffic must remain below 1,000 feet.

“There were some growing pains there at the beginning because we switched the airspace and we switched the frequencies, but it’s working out quite well,” said Jeffrey Smith, chairman of the Eastern Regional Helicopter Council, which was a member of the FAA working group. “We always believed that it was a safe area of operation beforehand, and these enhancements just make it a little bit safer.”