Copters flights catch flak at hearing

Anti-noise and air-traffic safety advocates joined elected officials at a Tues., Aug. 25, hearing by the City Council’s transportation committee on how to improve air safety in the aftermath of the Aug. 8 helicopter crash with a private airplane over the Hudson River in which nine people were killed.

The crash involving a Liberty sightseeing helicopter flying out of the 30th St. Heliport in the Hudson River Park provoked repeated demands at the hearing for banning such tourist flights and inspired more demands for closer Federal Aviation Administration control over chopper and private planes flying lower that 1,100 feet.

One solution proposed by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer for separate flight altitudes—1,100 feet for private planes and 500 feet for helicopters—prompted boos and jeers from members of the audience long concerned about helicopter noise.

Stringer, however, also proposed a moratorium on all sightseeing flights while allowing commercial, law enforcement and emergency helicopter flights to continue.

Abigale Trenk, president of Air Pegasus, which operates the 30th St. Heliport, submitted a statement saying that vertical separation of aircraft in the corridor is the most vital air-traffic issue to address in the short term. The statement noted that while Air Pegasus runs the heliport, it does not operate any flights. Her statement also said that pilot education and dissemination of flight rules and procedures should become a priority.

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried submitted a statement that said, in part, “We do not need sightseeing helicopter rides. Yes, tourism is a very large and important part of New York City economy and supports many people’s livelihoods. But whatever sightseers spend on a helicopter ride they would eagerly spend on some other activity.”

Under the settlement of a 2008 lawsuit by Friends of Hudson River Park, sightseeing flights from the 30th St. Heliport will cease as of April 1, 2010, and the number of tourist flights from 30th St. was reduced to 25,000 flights in the year that ended last May 31 and to 12,500 for the coming year. Matthew Washington, deputy director of Friends, told the committee that the lawsuit was filed to eliminate the noise that disturbs park users. “While our suit was not based on specific air-traffic concerns, we hope these efforts will aid in a reduction of potential dangers,” he said

Ken Paskar, a Lower East Side resident and a general aviation pilot for 30 years, told the committee that the Federal Aviation Administration has rules for flights at all altitudes, but at 1,100 feet and below, the agency does not require private pilots or helicopter pilots to file flight plans or be in radio contact with flight controllers. Indeed at 1,100 feet, planes and choppers may not register on radar and radio communication can be uncertain, so the “see and avoid” rule governs low-altitude air traffic.

Paskar, a volunteer representative with the F.A.A. Safety Team who testified as a private citizen, said he believes that rules for flying in the Hudson River corridor could be improved. He noted that in the Washington, D.C. area the F.A.A. requires general aviation pilots to take a course on “see and avoid” rules. Paskar said a similar course should be required of pilots who fly in the Hudson River corridor.

Congressmember Jerrold Nadler submitted a statement calling on the F.A.A. to use its authority to control airspace below 1,100 feet. “The F.A.A. insisted to us for years that it lacked statutory authority to regulate the airspace below 1,100 feet in the New York City Corridor, but we are gratified that the agency has reversed its position and agreed it has statutory authority to regulate this airspace,” he said.

Nadler repeated his demand that all small aircraft be required to install a Traffic Collision Avoidance System and a Mode C Transponder, devices that make low-altitude aircraft aware of each other.

Joy Held, president of the Helicopter Noise Coalition of NYC, said sightseeing helicopter flights are “utterly unnecessary, dangerous, noisy, a serious security risk, and they cause pollution.”

Testimony submitted by William DeCota, aviation director of the Port Authority, noted that the National Transportation Safety Board is likely to make recommendations to the F.A.A. after the review of the Aug. 8 tragedy is complete. “But it will be up to the F.A.A. to implement them,” DeCota said. He also mentioned that the F.A.A. had closed the East River flight corridor after Corey Lidle, a former New York Yankees player, fatally crashed his plane into an Upper East Side building in 2006.

The Eastern Region Helicopter Council also submitted a statement saying that copter pilots flying out of the three ports—at 30th St. on the Hudson, Wall St. and 34th St. on the East River—have all gone through extensive training. The Council statement noted that since the first helicopter landing area in the city was established in 1949, there was only one mid-air collision, in 1983, besides the Aug. 8 accident.

Councilmember John Liu, chair of the transportation committee, said that neither the F.A.A. nor the N.T.S.B. were scheduled to testify on Tuesday, but said his committee would invite the two agencies to subsequent hearings.