The Hudson River Conga Line

Submitted by Arthur G. Allen, Commissioner, Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission

Those of us who have flown the so called “VFR Corridor” through the New York Airspace, often looking up at the skyscrapers, have had the flying thrill of a life time. I believe that pilots who have flown the Hudson River at the prescribed altitude know the degree of risk they run. Few places in the world offer the kind of challenge — except maybe the annual Oshkosh fly-in.

Keeping in mind the rules of flying the Hudson is important. You enter the river environment under control. We talk to ATC until descending down into a virtual pipeline between the banks of the river. I usually get vectored to the river corridor up north of Westchester County Airport. This gives me time to get established on the south west bank of the river. To all of you non-pilots, it is the right side of the river flying toward the Statue of Liberty and eventually the Varizanno Straights where you can climb back to your “en route altitude”. The brief low altitude portion of a trip down the river allows aircraft to fly much more efficiently through the NY/NJ airspace. If this option was not available, we would need to go miles and miles around the controlled airspace or high above it. This often creates an even less safe option that the “VFR Corridor”. This option mixes fast moving jets with much slower General Aviation traffic. Because the the river option is available, a large number of aircraft are able to pass thru the area away from commercial aircraft. It is important to note that radar is very ineffective on the river between the tall buildings at very low altitudes. This is why it remains a visual flight rules (VFR) zone.

One reporter recently referred to the absence of control over the river. She was clearly not a pilot or a very good investigator. If she had cared to ask, she would have learned that:

  1. We are under ATC control up to the time we enter the area directly over the river.
  2. We can be seen on radar and kept informed until we declare our own “See and be Seen Control” over the river.
  3. We can be seen when we climb to 1,500 feet or higher, over the river.
  4. We can talk to the LaGuardia Tower if we choose, the full length of the river.
  5. We can talk to any other aircraft in the “corridor” on the river frequency.
  6. We must accept positive control when we reach the north (Westchester) or south (Varizanno Straights) entry points.
  7. During the few minutes it takes to travel to 15 or so miles down (or up) the Hudson, we stay in line and watch for the commercial touring helicopters which are constantly coming up at us.

I hope the FAA does not react to the terrible loss of lives in this tragedy by reacting to the ill informed non-pilots who have never done this type of flying. I would load up my plane in the morning, with my family and fly this same trip to the “Great Lady on the Hudson” and feel 100% confident in our safety. I do know that some changes will have to be made to keep everybody happy. So here are a few ideas:

  1. Require pilots to enter the river corridor at the north and south “entry points” only.
  2. Declare to ATC at that point the altitude, direction of flight and type of aircraft with color.
  3. Establish aircraft you are behind and stay in line down the river.
  4. Maintain 1,000 feet exactly (at all times).
  5. Require all helicopters to fly at 500 feet and not break into the fixed wing line.
  6. Require all helicopters to climb (if needed) over the center of the river. This will prevent choppers from coming up into the path of fixed wing aircraft.
  7. Review the availability of new radar technologies for a control system which would not be cost prohibitive.

I am sure there will be some good suggestions from the post accident NTSB report. I am also sure all pilots agree that FAA and NTSB should not overreact and take away this flying priviledge. If we discuss some new ideas from pilots in the GA fleet, the helicopter tour companies, the AOPA and the government, we should come up with a reasonable new program to keep the “Lady Liberty” free to be seen from the air.

Arthur G. Allen, Commissioner
Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission

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