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Calm Urged Until Hudson Mid-Air Is Thoroughly Investigated

Tue, Nov 17, 2009 — David Evans

Investigatory Process

A letter from two influential pilots’ organizations to FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt discourages any rash reactions to the mid-air collision 8 August between a light plane and a sightseeing helicopter in New York City’s Hudson River corridor, which resulted in nine deaths.

“Acting precipitously, without all the facts, may have unintended consequences while failing to improve safety,” reads the 13 August letter, signed by Craig Fuller, President of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and Tom Poberezny, President of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA).

Since the crash, there have been calls for a variety of actions from lawmakers, the media, and the public, ranging from closing the river airspace, imposing new altitude restrictions, and other measures.

“To take action in the absence of the facts could cause more problems than it resolves,” the letter reads.

AOPA and EAA take issue with descriptions of the corridor as a “wild west” of aviation anarchy, noting that hundreds of aircraft safely traverse the Hudson River each day.

Late last week, the FAA announced it had convened a New York Airspace Working Group to review the current Hudson and East River operating procedures nd to make recommendations to Administrator Babbitt by 28 August. In the meantime, Babbitt urged all pilots who operate in the area to follow the protocol outlined in an 11 August Notice to Airmen (NOTAM). The NOTAM advises pilots who fly in the airspace over the two rivers to turn on their lights, use special radio frequencies, announce when they enter the airspace and fly at 140 knots or less.

The AOPA/EAA letter to the FAA’s Babbitt follows:

“The August 8th mid-air collision between a small airplane and a sightseeing helicopter in New York’s Hudson River Corridor is a terrible tragedy …

“(In) the wake of any tragedy, there is a strong desire to take immediate action to prevent a recurrence. However, acting precipitously, without all of the facts, may have unintended negative consequences while failing to improve safety or prevent future problems.

“In these first few days since the accident, we have heard calls for the FAA to take ‘immediate’ action from some in Congress, the media, and the public. Various groups have asked the FAA to close the airspace entirely, instigate new equipment requirements for aircraft transiting the airspace, ban private general aviation flights from the airspace, impose new altitude requirements to segregate traffic, or impose various other regulations on the airspace and the aircraft that use it. These demands, though well intentioned, have not been well reasoned.

“As with any aviation accident, the first step must be to conduct a thorough investigation and establish facts about what happened and why. We recognize that the NTSB and FAA are now in the process of conducting such an investigation.

“New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a knowledgeable pilot himself, has been a voice of reason during this difficult period, urging patience and recommending that no regulatory action be taken until the investigations are complete and the causes of this tragedy are well understood. We must concur. To take action in the absence of the facts could cause more problems than it resolves.

“Many of those calling for new restriction have referred to the airspace as the ‘wild west.’ As you know, nothing could be further from the truth. Aircraft transiting the corridor must meet a clear set of requirements and follow very specific procedures, including complying with all visual flight rules. And these rules have proven very effective. Hundreds of aircraft safely traverse the Hudson River Corridor each day. Accidents like the one of Aug. 8 are uncommon occurrences, even in busy airspace. In fact, a search of records going back to 1962 shows there have been no other mid-air collisions in the Hudson River Corridor.

“To close the airspace entirely, as some have proposed, makes little sense. Roads and railways are not permanently closed following accidents, even though such accidents often result in tragic loss of life. And, rerouting traffic could create new burdens on the system by increasing crowding on other routes near the city and potentially overwhelming air traffic controllers who must handle a complex mix of aircraft with a variety of capabilities and needs.

“It makes equally little sense to mandate additional equipment for aircraft fling in the area. Not only would this impose new burdens on operators, it would do so without any clear benefit to safety. Suggestions that TCAS [Traffic Alert Collision Avoidance System] be required within the airspace fail to recognize the FAA’s movement toward ADS-B [Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast] as a means of traffic management. To force operators to equip twice in a short period of time, again without demonstrating clear safety benefits, would be an unreasonable and inappropriate use of regulatory authority that could have far-reaching economic impacts and ground many operators.

“In addition, the volume of traffic in the area could make TCAS system, with their continuous alerts, more of a distraction than a help to pilots by pulling their attention away from their primary responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft. Pilots responding to TCAS alerts may also make rapid direction or altitude changes, creating new collision hazards and forcing other aircraft nearby to respond with their own avoidance maneuvers.

“ … We strongly urge patience while we await the results of the ongoing investigations …”

It will be interesting to see what the NTSB recommends, especially regarding TCAS and other technologies cited above, as well as overall procedures to assure safety in the Hudson River Corridor. The AOPA/EAA letter suggests doing nothing. The NTSB has a history of recommending corrective action after a high-profile accident.

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