Beware the Aviation Demagogues

Politicians who know nothing about aviation will soon be flocking to microphones -like moths to a porch light – demanding the FAA shut down the corridor – the virtual tunnel of airspace – that allows small airplanes to fly unfettered through the busy New York City airspace to either savor the sights or simply save a lot of time.

Such is the nature of rhetoric in the days following a spectacular fatal aviation accident. But all the uninformed posturing and demagoguery will overlook two very important points.  1) Systems devised by humans will never be perfect. 2) The system in place to avoid accidents over the Hudson is extremely effective and safe.

Over the years, thousands and thousands of airplanes and helicopters have safely plied their way through the Hudson River Corridor. The system sounds like anarchy, but it is extremely effective. Pilots tune in the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency of 123.05 MHz and start listening carefully – and talking quickly. They announce their location, altitude and direction using easily identifiable landmarks as points of reference.

I typically begin a flight down the corridor with a call like this: “Hudson Traffic, Cirrus 122CV – George Washington Bridge, southbound, Jersey side, one thousand feet, Hudson.” As I fly down, I keep announcing my location as I reach various landmarks.

The system works well – so long as pilots are tuned in and talking. In addition to making radio calls, it is very important pilots keep their head “out of the cockpit” – looking out the windows constantly for traffic. I prefer to fly this route with another pilot in the right seat – two sets of eyes are always better than one.

Shutting down this tunnel to small airplanes would mean pilots would have to call air traffic controllers – “New York Approach” – in order to fly the route. This means these busy people will be forced to manage even more traffic than they already do. Will that be safer? I suspect not.

Let’s not forget current system is already extremely safe – and this accident looks more like an unfortunate, improbable fluke that put two aircraft on a collision course – each unable to see the other. It was a terribly sad, one in a million event that should not invite a reflexive, uninformed regulatory response.