FAA: Midair Collision Mirrors Other Near-Misses

Correction Aug. 11, 2009

A previous Web version of this story incorrectly stated that aircraft flying in the Hudson River corridor could be doing so without electronic transponders. In fact, transponders are required in the area.

Saturday's midair collision of a helicopter and small plane over the Hudson River mirrors many reports of near-collisions filed by pilots, according to an NPR analysis of Federal Aviation Administration data. Host Madeleine Brand discusses the highlights of that analysis with NPR's Robert Benincasa.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Divers have found what's left of the small single-engine plane that collided with a touring helicopter between New York and New Jersey over the weekend. The search of the Hudson River resumed late today after being temporarily put on hold because of rough waters. Saturday's midair collision killed nine people.

BRAND: Accounts of the accident mirror many reports of near midair collisions filed by pilots. That's according to an analysis of Federal Aviation Administration data that NPR's Robert Benincasa was working on even before this weekend's accident. And he joins me now to tell us about what he's found. And let's just start where this happened in the airspace around Manhattan.

ROBERT BENINCASA: Sure. Madeleine, this area, in addition to being near some of the busiest airports in the world, is often very crowded with tour helicopters and small planes doing sightseeing. And because it's so crowded and the flight corridor is so narrow, it's kind of a free-for-all in terms of the rules for flying there, and some people say it's pretty perilous.

BRAND: Oh, wait a minute. You said a free-for-all? What does that mean?

BENINCASA: Well, we normally think of the air traffic control system as a very precisely calibrated system that keeps aircraft from hitting each other and that's true. But there are these types of airspace where the traffic rules are less formal. In many places they're the country roads of the air system where there's, you know, almost no one out there. But in a place like New York City, it's more like the Wild West.

BRAND: So, it's more like a Wild West, does that mean they can do whatever they want?

BENINCASA: It doesn't mean they can do whatever they want. There are some rules that the pilots abide by as they're flying up and down the river. For instance, they stay on one side of the river when they're going south and they stay on the other side of the river when they're going north. And as they fly up and down the river, they get on a particular radio frequency and they announce where they are. They say, you know, I'm flying a Cessna, and I'm flying right by the Statue of Liberty. And that's how they kind of keep track of each other.

BRAND: And Robert, why is it so difficult on a nice, sunny day for pilots to just use their eyes in this airspace?

BENINCASA: Well, it may be difficult precisely because it's a nice sunny day and there's a lot of traffic. And pilots tell me it's very difficult to keep track of it all and worry about controlling your aircraft. So the pilots relying on their eyes, they're also subject to the limitations of their vision.

BRAND: And they have blind spots just like people who drive cars?

BENINCASA: They do. They have blind spots just like you would operate an automobile - you would have a blind spot. It's the same thing in an airplane.

BRAND: So, I can see how on a nice, sunny day when there are lots of aircraft out there and they're all kind of making it up as they go along saying they're here and the other person's there, that maybe some signals could be crossed, so to speak. You actually crunched the numbers, what did you find?

BENINCASA: Yeah. We looked at the numbers of these near midair collision reports. This is when a pilot contacts the FAA and says, hey, you know, I had a near midair collision. My plane got too close to someone else's. And we looked at 1,800 of these reports that were filed between 1998 and 2008. And we found that about half of them happened in this airspace that's a little less regulated. And it's this airspace where the visual flight rules flights - the pilots that are flying just based on their eyes - are not controlled by the air traffic controllers. And we also found that three-quarters of all of the near misses involved these visual flight rule flights. These are typically the small planes that aren't flying based on their instruments, but they're flying based on what the pilot can see.

BRAND: So, if that is true, then why isn't it more heavily regulated and is there talk now of it being more heavily regulated?

BENINCASA: Well, of course there is. The talk is some helicopter pilots and some others say they'd like to see a system where the helicopters and the fixed wing aircraft have to fly in different places so that they don't hit each other. The fixed wing aircraft they're taking about having them fly at 1,100 feet and so that they don't go very low and conflict with the helicopters.

There's also been some talk of requiring aircraft that fly in this corridor to be equipped with transponders. And these are these electronic devices that allow air traffic controllers and other aircraft to know where a particular aircraft is. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In fact, transponders are required in the area.]

BRAND: NPR's Robert Benincasa specializes in data analysis for us here at NPR. Robert, thank you.

BENINCASA: Thank you.

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