Hudson River Mid-Air Collision

On Saturday, August 9, nine people were killed in a mid-air collision between a Eurocopter AS350 (N401LH) helicopter, operated by Liberty Helicopter Tours, and a Piper PA32 (N71MC) airplane operated by a private pilot. The death toll included five Italian tourists and a pilot from New Jersey in the helicopter and three members of a Pennsylvania family in the airplane.

The crash occurred in the "Hudson River VFR Corridor," a small slice of airspace above the Hudson River in New York City where flight is permitted under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) below 1,100 feet. Under current rules, pilots may enter this area without any clearance from air traffic control and are expected to self-announce their entry into the corridor and to report checkpoints along the river on a designated radio frequency. The corridor can become very crowded, especially on a clear summer day like the day of the tragedy.

The safety of the VFR airspace around New York has been a concern for a number of years. It received a lot of attention after the 2006 crash of Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle's airplane into a Manhattan apartment building. At that time, we and others, including Senator Charles E. Schumer, called for new rules to be implemented to ensure the safety and security of the New York City area.

The comments of the National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman raise questions regarding air traffic control communications with the pilot of the airplane and whether there was a proper understanding by air traffic control of the pilot's intention regarding entry into the airspace.

The Hudson River accident raised a number of aviation safety issues:

  • The safety of on-demand flight operations, like sight-seeing helicopter tours.

  • Aircraft separation - the FAA should establish new aircraft routes and altitudes that would separate tour helicopters and other aircraft transiting the area.

  • Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems - commercial aircraft operating in the corridor should be required to have TCAS on board, which warns pilots of collision risks in time to avoid collisions.

  • Training - pilots entering the New York City airspace should fully understand the dangers associated operating at a low altitude in a narrow area with significant traffic.

  • Air Traffic Control communications, clearances and directions.