Hudson Midair: Let The Howling Begin
In the wake of an accident like the unfortunate midair between a helicopter and a Lance in New York's Hudson corridor over the weekend, being in the aviation press isn't so much like waiting for the other shoe to drop as it is trying to count how many shoes zing by. Predictably, New York Senator Charles "I-Never-Met-a–Rule-I-Didn't-Like" Schumer called for more regulation. Refreshingly, New York's level-headed mayor, Michael Bloomberg, counseled for everyone to take a deep breath. He performed a similar function when Cory Lidle flew into an East Side apartment building in 2006 while trying to extricate himself from the East River corridor.
To general aviation's considerable benefit, Bloomberg is a pilot and an aircraft owner, so not only does he get it, he's in a position to explain to the general public exactly what they have to get, too. The "it" I am referring to here is understanding relative risk and learning to live with the fact that when you get into any kind of airborne conveyance, there's always the remote chance it will come violently back to earth and you'll be injured or killed. Gravity is said to be one of the universe's weakest forces, but it is, if nothing else, relentless.
I've flown the Hudson corridor so much that I've lost count. Sometimes it's busy, sometimes it's deserted. Often, you'll drive yourself to distraction looking for an airplane you hear on the self-announce frequencies but never see. Given the volume of traffic over the river, the number of accidents is trivially small, as is the risk. There are more fatal accidents on the Palisades Parkway running on the Jersey side of the river than there are in the air over it.
Already, I'm seeing calls for requiring ADS-B or TCAS generally or in the corridor. While these systems are certainly an option, pilots, owners and operators will have to spend a ton of money to install them to mitigate what is, in the end, a tiny risk. And that applies to mid-air collisions everywhere. In the grand scheme of things, if you eliminated every GA mid-air collision, you'd move the accident rate needle a little, but not much. There are a dozen or fewer fatal mid-airs each year, against 1800 or so total GA accidents, 350 to 400 of which are fatal.
One city official suggested banning sightseeing helicopters, but that's silly. Like the Grand Canyon, New York's skyline is a great national treasure and anyone who wants to should have the right to see it. The mechanisms to manage the risk are in place—well understood rules of the road and published self-announce frequencies, radar advisories—to make it a reasonably safe thing to do. But that doesn't mean you still can't get killed doing it, a risk that applies to everything from going to the dentist to changing a light bulb.
Which is exactly what Michael Bloomberg was saying and to which I reply: Right on, your honor.