Panic Over the Hudson

Hudson River midairOn August 8, 2009, a light airplane collided with a helicopter carrying tourists near the Statue of Liberty. Both aircraft crashed, and nine people were killed. The catastrophe was witnessed firsthand by hundreds, if not thousands, of onlookers, and it became a major news story, much like the earlier fatal crash of Cory Lidle, which I wrote about for Popular Mechanics. In both cases, public alarm and outrage led to calls for flight rules to be tightened. City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side, went so far as to demand that tourist helicopters be banned from Manhattan.

The FAA said they would study the problem — and two days ago, they finally began implementing the new rules for the flight-seeing route over the Hudson River. The biggest change? Now, pilots passing through the area have to stay between 1,000 and 1,300 feet, and local traffic (such as tourist helicopters) have to stay below 1,000 feet.

At first glance, it seems like the FAA has responded to the public’s concerns by implementing a substantive initiative. But has anything really changed? As someone who loves flying over the river, and hopes to continue doing so, I have to say that the answer is no. And that’s a good thing.

First of all, what few non-pilots can appreciate is that these kinds of flight rules are virtually unenforceable. The whole point of the Hudson River corridor is that pilots are flying under their own recognizance. They’re not talking to a controller, so no one’s really paying much attention to what they’re doing. Even if someone were, the airplanes flying the corridor are not emitting unique transponder codes, so anyone looking at them on a radar screen wouldn’t be able to tell who’s who. So chances are good that when a pilot does do something wrong, they won’t get called on it. In practical terms, then, these new rules aren’t really rules at all, but guidelines to be followed on the honor system.

That sounds bad, but here’s the second key thing to remember: despite the incredibly high visibility of this one horribly crash, the flight corridor over the Hudson simply isn’t dangerous. Before this one awful midair, there hadn’t been a fatal collision in more than twenty years. To me, that says that the system in place worked.

And that’s why I”m happy that the FAA’s action was essentially ineffectual. Flying is one of the few areas in life that is not overburdened with rules and laws that try to protect us from ourselves. When you take to the air as the pilot of a light aircraft, you have to be aware that you are responsible for yourself, for your passengers, and the other people in the air around you. It’s an awesome responsibility, but responsibility is the essence of freedom. Once in a while, people will misuse that freedom, orjust  fall victim to bad luck, and tragedy will ensue. But the fear that bad outcomes are less than infinitely improbable should not justify ever more restrictive rules. Freedom is worth more than that.