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Aug. 8 2009 - 3:39 pm | 68 views | 3 recommendations | 13 comments

Seeing the Lady: Fun but Risky


The Statue of Liberty from the air above the Hudson River (Miles O'Brien)

Flying low and slow over the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey to “see the Lady” is a real eyeful and a ton of fun – but it is neither for the faint of heart nor the foolhardy aviators.

There is nothing inherently unsafe about it – but it does require a pilot’s full attention.

There are a few ways to do this. One way involves calling air traffic controllers who manage traffic in the New York City region. You tell them where you are – and what you would like to do. If they are not too busy, they will clear you in to the so-called “Class B” airspace – usually at an altitude of about 2,500 – 3,000 feet. – or about twice as high as the Empire State Building.

This is probably the safest way to fly the river, but it is not as fun as going lower through the Visual Flight Rules (VFR) corridor. You can fly into that corridor without checking in with controllers manning “New York Approach” so long as you remain below 1,100 feet, stay near the river’s edges and fly no faster than 140 knots (160 mph) The rules are fairly straightforward, but it is extremely important that pilots become familiar with them in advance – and stick to the procedures.

First off, traffic should always stay to the right – aircraft going north are supposed to fly on the Manhattan side of the River. Pilots flying trips to the south are supposed to hug the New Jersey bank of the Hudson. There is a frequency that pilots are supposed to monitor – and announce their position – party-line style.

There are specific landmarks along the route where pilots are encouraged to report – the George Washington Bridge, The Intrepid Aircraft Carrier floating museum, The 30th Street Heliport, The Holland Tunnel (you can see the air shafts clearly), Governor’s Island and finally The Statue of Liberty (The Lady). The chopper pilots who fly these routes every day routinely make these reports – but frankly some general aviation pilots are better than others – and the radio reports are not mandated by any rules.

Bottom line: it is up to the individual pilot to “see and avoid” other traffic. I have flown this route many times, and I have often wished I could swivel my head like an owl as I looked for converging traffic.

One of the busiest spots in this busy corridor is right near the Heliport at 30th St. on a pier on the Manhattan side of the river. The tour choppers there come and go frequently. They take off, go straight across the river and then turn down to the south for a trip to the statue. The chopper involved in this collision was doing just that. The plane was flying south – unsure what speed or altitude.

But here is an important point: it was a Piper PA-32 – A Cherokee Six or Saratoga (the sort of plane John Kennedy Jr. flew to his demise). It is a low wing airplane with a rather long nose. In level flight, downward visibility for the pilot is not so good. So the ascending chopper might very well have been completely obscured by the wing and engine cowling.

Meanwhile, the chopper pilot might not have seen the plane either. You have to wonder if the plane pilot was issuing radio reports as he flew down the river. It is quite possible that each aircraft was in the other’s “blind spot”.

I do hope this does not lead to a knee-jerk permanent closure of the Hudson River VFR corridor (as was the case for the East River corridor after the Cory Lidle Crash in October 2006). The corridor is safe – so long as pilots go with the flow – keep their eyes open and make themselves be known to other aircraft.

More photos from the Hudson below.

(Miles O'Brien)

(Miles O'Brien)


(Miles O'Brien)


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  1. collapse expand

    What is the percentage of aircraft that have accidents over the Hudson? So low as to be forgettable. Sad accident, of course, but there’s really no more story to discuss here than the DC Metro crash – 99.9999% of the time, it doesn’t happen.

  2. collapse expand

    Thank you, Miles O’Brien. Knew I could count on you for the right information.

  3. collapse expand

    Guess the nine persons who died will feel relieved now. If even the author didn’t feel quite safe e few times I think there is something which can be done to avoid a next tragedy. Can’t just consider it as unavoidable “collateral damage”.

  4. collapse expand

    Do helicopter tour pilots stay audio-connected with others in their airspace? How hard is it to do that, while tour-guiding? Not presuming blame, just wondering about this in recalling past air tours.

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    I am a 26-year broadcast news veteran - with nearly 17 years as CNN’s science, aerospace, technology and environment correspondent. I am an active pilot, airplane owner and a lover of all things that fly. I was slated to be the first journalist to fly on the space shuttle before the Columbia accident ended that dream. I am based in New York City - married with two teenagers and two dogs.

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