The pilots simply never saw each other.
Steven Altman had just departed Teterboro Airport in his single-engine airplane – his brother and nephew aboard. They were heading to the Hudson River flight corridor – and eventually out the mouth of New York Harbor toward the Jersey shore. As he reached the river, he turned his low-wing plane steeply to the right to begin hugging the west bank of the Hudson – the proper place for southbound traffic.
At precisely that moment, Jeremy Clarke took off from the 30th Street Heliport in a Eurocopter carrying five tourists from Italy. As he gained altitude, he flew across the river, and turned to the left to fly down to the Statue of Liberty.
As they converged, Altman would have been in the left front seat of his plane looking to his right – while Clarke was in the right front seat of the chopper – looking left.
The low wing on Altman’s airplane would have completely obscured the chopper. In a climbing left turn, Clarke’s view of the airplane would have been obscured by the rotors above him.
There is a long history of so called “low-wing/high-wing” mid air collisions. Most of the time, they happen near smaller airports that do not have a control tower.
In this case it happened a very busy slice of the sky – the virtual tunnel for airplane traffic over the Hudson River.
Those of us who fly through this airspace are responsible for seeing and avoiding each other. There are no air traffic controllers serving as traffic cops here.
And before you get yourself all spun up about this (I am talkin’ to you Sen. Schumer!), before this tragic crash there has never been a mid air collision like this in New York City.
Over the years, many thousands of airplane and helicopters have successfully and safely plied their way through this corridor of airspace wherein the responsibility for collision avoidance rests entirely in the cockpit.
And the real truth is it makes flying in the New York City airspace safer – because all the aircraft who fly in this zone are not taxing already maxed out air traffic controllers.
If tour helicopters had to check in with ATC every time they alighted with a load of tourists, the system would bog down in a hurry.
It is NOT the Wild West up there – as one congressional staffer suggests. Not by a long shot. There are rules that pilots follow and the safety record speaks for itself.
It is a busy place with a lot of traffic and you have to pay attention all the time. But that’s New York for you. When two cars collide in Midtown Manhattan, do we instantly insist the traffic laws be changed?
The odds of this accident happening were long indeed. If either pilot had taken off five or ten seconds later (or earlier) it would not have happened.
It is a terrible tragedy and we all mourn the needless loss of life. But it was, statistically, a black swan – and not the result of some endemic, systemic flaw. Let’s resist the temptation to try and fix a system that is not broken. More often than not, the unintended consequences simply make matters worse.