WASHINGTON. D.C. — The Aug. 8 collision between an airplane and a helicopter over the Hudson River, which resulted in nine deaths, has generated much public and media attention.
On the same weekend this accident happened, two autos collided on a freeway near Los Angeles, killing seven people. Local media covered this tragedy, but it received little or no national attention. Perhaps it was because more than 40,000 people lose their lives in auto accidents every year, so death by auto collisions is commonplace.
Aircraft accidents are unusual. As a former daily newspaper reporter, I know the unusual gets attention. It sells newspapers and generates viewers for television news. That is understandable.
The next question is, what happens now?
Every major accident — and this one over the Hudson is minor compared to others — has resulted in major changes by the government.
This one is no different, as FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has set up a panel to look into the airspace issue. Among those included in the discussions, in addition to the FAA, are the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), and Air Transport Association (ATA).
Since 1945 there have been at least nine midair collisions involving certificated air carriers. Each has brought about some kind of change.
Following the collision of two airliners over the Grand Canyon, government took aviation out of the Department of Commerce and established the Federal Aviation Administration. The most tragic aviation accident in New York was when a United DC-8 and a TransWorld Constellation collided over Brooklyn, killing 132 people. President Kennedy ordered a review of air traffic control and this helped develop radar for civilian use. In 1967 a Piedmont 727 and a Cessna 310 collided near Henderson, N.C. A TransWorld flight and a Beech Baron had a midair near Urbana, Ohio. An Allegheny DC-9 collided with a Navy F-4 near Duarte, Calif., in 1969. In 1978, a Pacific Southwest jet approaching to land in San Diego hit a Cessna 172 taking off.
That accident resulted in major struggles for general aviation. The FAA wanted to place restricted airspace around every airport in the nation served by an airline. This was eventually scaled back after a major effort, spearheaded by AOPA (the organization earned an award from the Public Relations Society of America for the PR program.) Eventually the FAA came up with the various classes of airspace.
The FAA now is redesigning the airspace in the New York area. This is primarily to cut down on airline delays, the result of the hub system and scheduling flights together at prime times. Actual flight activity in this airspace has not changed that much over the years.
In 1976, the four major airports in the New York area — LaGuardia, J.F. Kennedy, Newark, and Teterboro — had 1,091,405 movements. Last year, it was 1,293,796, an increase of 202,391.
There are other airports in the area used primarily by general aviation but, over more than three decades, flight activity has grown just 18%, a minor increase for the rules and regulations changes.
The speed limit today below 10,000 feet is about what the speeds were of prop and turbo-prop planes 40 to 50 years ago. Before the airspace restrictions, I flew a Piper J-3 Cub over Manhattan many times. That was about the time airliners under positive ATC control collided.
Today, radar is better. More general aviation aircraft have radios and transponders. Still there are major attempts to change the operations of all aircraft.
As long as there are people, there will be people making mistakes. The only sure way to avoid midair collisions is to allow only one airplane in the sky at a time.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.