Ask the pilot

Should New York's famous East and Hudson River flyways be closed to small aircraft?

Published October 20, 2006 11:38AM (EDT)

As you may have learned after the crash of New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle's private plane, the island of Manhattan is bracketed by an unusual pair of low-altitude flyways. These north-to-south "corridors," as they are known colloquially, trace the contours of the Hudson and East rivers. They are highly popular with recreational fliers, helicopters and other small aircraft, and rightly so, for they provide what is possibly the most spectacular view to be seen from an airplane anywhere on earth. The corridors aren't quite the free-for-all described by the media and certain politicians in recent days -- they are subject to speed restrictions and right-of-way protocols that keep traffic flowing smoothly and safely -- but indeed they are flown exclusively under Visual Flight Rules, meaning there is no requirement for radar tracking, flight plans or even radio contact with air traffic control.

The Hudson River route is the more relaxing of the two. It's a broad, mostly straight course along Manhattan's west side. The East River corridor is more challenging -- a snaking, hemmed-in sliver that dead-ends into LaGuardia Airport airspace near the northern end of Roosevelt Island. Here, unless you have transit permission from La Guardia's tower, there's scant choice but to U-turn. Most pilots will reverse course early, south of Roosevelt, where the river is still wide. Further up, it's a very tight turn, with restricted sky on one side and the skyscrapers of Manhattan on the other. Botch that turn, and you could find yourself in trouble, trapped in a virtual box canyon.

Enter Cory Lidle and his flight instructor, killed when their four-seat Cirrus SR20 slammed into a 42-story condominium complex while attempting an East River course reversal. Reportedly, they'd gone well north, into the slimmest confines of the corridor. There's little room for error here. Even a mild crosswind can displace that U-turn enough to set up disaster. Thus, one very plausible scenario has the two pilots misjudging their turn radius. Suddenly the skyline looms ahead, and they dramatically steepen their bank to avoid colliding. But the sharper your bank, the higher your stall speed. Inexperienced, and perhaps out of their league in a high-performance model like the Cirrus, they stall and lose control, crashing into the Belaire at the 31st floor, about 300 feet from the ground.

Media reports have emphasized that it's unknown whether Lidle or the instructor was "at the controls" during the crash. But in the Cirrus, as in virtually all general aviation craft, either front seat occupant has the ability to adjust power, pitch and bank. For all intents and purposes both pilots were at the controls. And unfortunately, the fact that Lidle was accompanied by an instructor does not negate the possibility of gross, inexcusable error. Not to belittle the knowledge and skills of the many hardworking CFIs out there (that's certificated flight instructor, in Federal Aviation Administration parlance), some of whom have devoted their careers to the job, but teaching is itself a learning process, and many instructors are low-time, novice aviators. I was a CFI at age 21, making $140 a week giving lessons to businessmen and wealthy retirees. For many, it's a way of building time, with an eye toward the airlines later on. Lidle had fewer than 100 hours in his logbook; his instructor, 26-year-old Tyler Stanger, flew mostly in the American West. Unfamiliar with the rigors of Manhattan corridor operations, they were attempting a difficult maneuver at the airway's most harrowing point.

In the early 1990s, finally putting all those CFI hours to good use as a captain for a Boston-based regional airline, I would sometimes treat paying passengers to the thrill of corridor flying on routes into and out of Newark, N.J. We played the game slightly differently -- we flew higher than most of the sightseers, and were always in touch with air traffic control -- but it was always exhilarating, as you might gather from this photograph, snapped by yours truly from the cockpit of a 15-seater. Or this eerily prescient shot, taken a few years later.

In this space in 2003, on the second anniversary of Sept. 11, the latter photo accompanied a column on the thrills and challenges of corridor flying. I was pleased, and somewhat surprised, to report that the FAA had kept the flyways open even after the destruction of the World Trade Center, when many were concerned about the city's vulnerability to future attacks from the air.

The deaths of Lidle and Stanger have people fuming again, and this time the FAA has responded by restricting access along the East River. Pilots must now receive permission from air traffic control before proceeding north of Governors Island, near the southern tip of Manhattan, and into the corridor proper. Some, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a licensed pilot familiar with corridor operations, have lauded the new measures. Others are decrying them as sorely inadequate.

Many people were shocked to learn that, until now, corridor traffic was exempt from the need to be in touch with ATC. But that's much of the beauty of flying under Visual Flight Rules, and the system worked pretty well. Thousands of private aircraft and helicopters ply the river patterns annually, and Cory Lidle's was the first to hit a building.

But, you're asking, how does a requirement for radio contact prevent pilots from smashing into buildings? Well, it doesn't. Gotham's iconic spires and small airplanes will remain in close proximity to one another, and permission to proceed from an unseen controller has no bearing, one way or the other, on a pilot's airmanship. The requirement does discourage a limited number of pilots from embarking northbound -- those who'd rather not bother with the hassle of establishing contact and dialing in transponder codes -- but mostly what the FAA gave us is a public relations move.

From a traffic management perspective, the new regulations may actually burden the system by increasing the workload of controllers. One byproduct of the corridors' architecture is that it consolidates VFR traffic in tight, easily delineated patterns away from the arrival and departure routes of La Guardia, Newark and JFK airports. Controllers overseeing those facilities can focus on airline traffic, leaving the recreational fliers down low, along the rivers, more or less managing themselves.

But the FAA felt it had to do something. The radio rule relieves public pressure while only minimally impacting corridor protocols. To the layperson, it sounds like a good idea, even if it changes very little. And I hate pointing that out because, for a change, the feds are one step ahead of public perception, realizing that the system has long been a safe one. Short of closing New York entirely to VFR traffic, there's not much you can do to completely eliminate the already unlikely possibility of an accident.

Unless it's not an accident. Predictably, a majority of those clamoring for the FAA to do more are quick to invoke, what else, the specter of terrorism. Here again mandating radio contact doesn't matter terribly much, with buildings and aircraft still only a few seconds apart. With the modus operandi of Sept. 11 hardly forgotten, the notion of terrorists crashing a light plane into the United Nations or Yankee Stadium is a tough one to brush off, and has inspired some to call for closure of the corridors entirely to all noncommercial leisure traffic.

But is this sensible, when the potential for destruction is so comparatively minor? Small planes are just that -- small. Lidle's four-seater weighed less than many automobiles, and did no damage to the structural integrity of the Belaire. When American Airlines Flight 587 wiped out half a city block near Kennedy airport in November 2001, was there an outcry to ban overflights of Brooklyn?

But, people will counter, what if somebody packed one of these planes full of explosives? To wit, "should a terrorist get hold of a plane and fill it with explosives or a biological weapon," posed an Oct. 12 editorial in USA Today, arguing for greater oversight of private aviation in general. Theoretically that's possible, but you certainly don't need a plane to disperse a biological agent, and when it comes to explosives, terrorists would get substantially more bang for their buck on the ground. You don't blow up a building by setting off a bomb near the top. You blow up a building by setting off a bomb at the bottom. The twin towers collapsed in 2001 from fuel-fed fires that weakened their steel trusses, not from impact forces or concussion. Twenty gallons of gas in the tanks of a Cessna isn't liable to burn up more than a floor or two, while the blast from explosives would be far more effective if targeted down low.

To that end, a terrorist -- domestic or foreign -- can fit a heck of a lot more TNT into a vehicle than into most single-engine planes. If you have trouble visualizing how much damage a car or truck bomb might cause, vs. the two-story fire started by Lidle's plane crash, remember Oklahoma City and Timothy McVeigh. Or remember the U.S. Army barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, when a Mercedes truck packed with 12,000 pounds of high explosives set off what is believed to have been the largest nonnuclear explosion in history, leveling the facility and killing 241 American servicemen. Now imagine that truck parked in front of a skyscraper.

No matter. There's limited tolerance for rational debate in America these days, especially if airplanes and skyscrapers are together in the same discussion. "The Upper East Side is not Disney World," howled Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a Democrat representing Manhattan's East Side, speaking in a New York Times article. "The F.A.A. has a pre-9/11 mindset."

Maloney and others argue that New York's airspace should be regulated similarly to the skies around Washington, D.C. I would point out, at great risk of being called cavalier, that this is the United States of America and not Communist Romania or the Soviet Union. Moreover, practically speaking, prohibited airspace isn't, by itself, going to protect anybody from anything. There has always been a prohibited zone above the White House, but that didn't stop Frank Corder from smashing his Cessna into the property in 1994. (Damage was minimal -- except to Corder, who killed himself in the impact -- and White House visitor tours were back on schedule within hours of the incident.) Airspace over the Pentagon has similarly been off-limits. How effective was that on Sept. 11, against a 757 traveling at more than 400 knots? Unless you're willing to put antiaircraft batteries in the Chrysler Building's gargoyles, on 24-hour alert, you're not going to stop a determined enough adversary.

Maybe we should stop obsessing about it. Frankly, and don't take this the wrong way, we could use a few more people with a "pre-9/11 mindset."

As I write in my book, there's a poetic futility in the idea of trying to secure the very air above our heads. But there are those who would try, given the chance.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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