Monday, August 10, 2009
The Hudson River corridor
The tragic collision of airplane and helicopter in the corridor over the Hudson River the other day brought back to mind my own trip up the Hudson in 1995 for my book Flight of the Gin Fizz.
Was it scary? You bet. But not for the reasons you might think.
I am a "no-radio" pilot, being totally deaf. I can self-announce my position, as I did early that morning when my little two-seater Cessna 150 skimmed over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and into New York Harbor. Whether anyone understood me I don't know. But there was almost no traffic; a lone sightseeing helicopter dashed by in the other direction on the west side of the Hudson. My flight up to the Tappan Zee Bridge and then westward was uneventful, although full of remarkable sights -- the World Trade Center still stood, for instance.
Except for the requirement to self-announce, the Hudson River VFR corridor is not controlled. No tower keeps aircraft at a distance from one another.
Is this inherently unsafe? I don't think so.
Compared to the storm of airplanes in the skies over Oshkosh, Wisconsin, during the annual fly-in there, Hudson River traffic is almost embarrassingly light. Yes, there is a tower at Oshkosh and the controllers are busier than armless paperhangers, but there is also a procedure for vintage aircraft without radio to land in the middle of the maelstrom.
Once every five or six years there is an accident, usually fatal, but when the numbers of airplanes in the Oshkosh airspace at any one time are compared to the number of mishaps, this fact emerges: Flying around Oshkosh during AirVenture is remarkably safe.
That's because the pilots there employ the Number One adage of Visual Flight Rules: "See and avoid." Their heads are constantly swiveling, searching for traffic, like World War I pilots straining to see the Hun in the sun.
They do the same thing in the Hudson River VFR corridor. It has a remarkably good safety record: just three helicopter accidents in 19 years.
Once in a long while -- a long while -- things go wrong despite everyone's best efforts. Exactly what happened last week is not yet known, but it seems possible that the pilot of the low-wing Piper Lance never saw the helicopter because it was in the airplane's blind spot. Something might have been going on in its cockpit; the Lance pilot did not answer radio calls before departing controlled airspace and entering the Hudson. We'll have to wait for the NTSB to rule.
Until then, let's not advocate drastic changes in the Hudson River flight rules. Doing so given its remarkable history is like demanding all the geese around New York be killed, as a Manhattan newspaper advocated when that USAirways Airbus hit a flock of them and landed in the river without loss of life.
Now why was my flight up the Hudson so scary? I was flying a tiny single-engine airplane very early on a holiday morning when people were still in bed. If an engine failure had forced me down into the river, it's possible that no one would have seen me and raised the hue and cry for rescue. That's why pilots of small planes are always looking for places to land just in case the motor decides to pack it in.
All the same, that flight was one of the great adventures of my life.