Thursday, September 3, 2009

(More) Further Thoughts on the Mid-Air Over the Hudson

Now comes the FAA with recommendations for reducing the risks of flying the VFR Corridor along the Hudson River in New York City. The NTSB has already issued some safety recommendations (which I discussed in this post), in reaction to the August 8th mid-air collision between a Piper Saratoga departing Teterboro and an air tour helicopter. (I originally discussed the accident in this post). The FAA states that their recommendations were derived independently from those of the NTSB but there are many similarities. The two sets of recommendations are largely compatible and, of course, the FAA is actually empowered to make things happen!

The NTSB's recommendations were, in my view, good ones. I did harbor a small concern with regard to their suggestion for altitude-based segregation of fixed wing traffic from rotary wing traffic. I observed:

I'm concerned that if the vertical extent of the VFR Corridor remains from surface to 1,100 feet there may be too little space for a safe vertical division. ... that the large number of helicopter operations, characterized by a large number of altitude excursions, would be compressed into an inadequate amount of space with the unintended consequence of an increased number of conflicts. ...

If the FAA was willing to give up a little of the Class B Airspace, so that the helicopters could operate from the surface to 1,000 feet and the fixed-wing traffic had available the airspace from 1,001 to 1,500 feet, then I believe the Board's recommendation would be fully supportable.

Whether that concern was justifiable, or not, the FAA's proposals appear to render it moot. Here from the press release is the core of the FAA's plan for the Hudson River Corridor:

"...[the] new exclusionary zone would be comprised of three components:
  • It would establish a uniform “floor” for the Class B airspace over the Hudson River at 1,300 feet, which would also serve as the “ceiling” for the exclusionary zone.
  • Between 1,300-2,000 feet, it would require aircraft to operate in the Class B airspace under visual flight rules but under positive air traffic control, and to communicate on the appropriate air traffic frequency.
  • Between 1,000-1,300 feet, it would require aircraft using 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 anti-collision 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 FAA also plans some pilot education initiatives to complement the changes to the airspace configuration:

..."[T]he FAA intends to develop training programs specifically tailored for pilots, air traffic controllers and fixed-base operators to increase awareness of the options available in the Hudson River airspace, and better develop plans that enhance safety for the intended flight."

It appears that the training to be developed will be made available on a voluntary basis, while the NTSB recommended mandatory training similar to that required for VFR operation near the Washington DC SFRA. Personally, I'd have preferred seeing the training mandated, but in the great scheme that may be a small item.

The FAA's release also discusses some localized procedural changes to reduce risk to Teterboro departures that need to transition into the Class B airspace or into the VFR Corridor.

While there are some differences at the margins between the NTSB recommendations and the FAA's plan,it appears that each organization has proffered a well-designed, proportionate set of responses to this tragic accident. They both deserve our appreciation and compliments.

It's especially impressive to see the FAA, never the most agile of organizations, respond to this situation with such alacrity. They are proposing to have the airspace changes finalized in time for inclusion in the next issuance of the New York Sectional and Terminal Area Charts, which occurs on November 19th. This would seem to be evidence of a refreshing let's-get-it-done approach that has to be coming down from the new Administrator, Randy Babbitt. About time, and good for him!

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