NEW YORK — A day after the fiery plane crash that killed Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, politicians expressed shock that, five years after Sept. 11, small aircraft are still allowed to fly right up next to the New York skyline.
“I think everyone is scratching their head, wondering how it is possible that an aircraft can be buzzing around Manhattan,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who has been lobbying for rule changes since 2004. “It’s virtually the Wild West. There is no regulation at all, other than, ‘Don’t run into anything.”’
The single-engine plane that carried Lidle to his death was flying over the East River, which separates Manhattan from Brooklyn and Queens and is lined on the Manhattan side by the United Nations building and scores of other skyscrapers.
It is one of the city’s busiest and most popular routes for sightseeing pilots, traffic helicopters and executives hopping from one business deal to the next, and it is largely unmonitored, as long as the aircraft stay below 1,100 feet.
Lawmakers have tried for years to close the corridor for reasons of safety and security.
Pataki calls for ‘tougher line’
Gov. George Pataki said Thursday that the Federal Aviation Administration “needs to take a much tougher line” about private, or general aviation, flights over the city.
However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a recreational pilot with decades of experience, said he believes the skies are safe under the current rules.
“We have very few accidents for an awful lot of traffic,” he said. “Every time you have an automobile accident, you’re not going to go and close the streets or prohibit people from driving.”
All flights over New York were grounded after Sept. 11, but the restrictions were lifted three months later.
Much of the airspace over the two main rivers that encircle Manhattan — the East River and the Hudson River — is unrestricted for small aircraft flying under 1,100 feet. Planes and helicopters beneath that ceiling do not have to file a flight plan or check in with air traffic controllers, as long as they do not stray from the sky over the rivers.
Lidle’s final flight path
New York pilots said the path taken by Lidle’s Cirrus SR20 on Wednesday is one of the most exhilarating: The plane went down the Hudson River, looped around the Statue of Liberty at the foot of Manhattan, then went up the East River, with the Brooklyn Bridge below and the United Nations on the left.
General aviation aircraft are allowed to go about as far north as Manhattan’s 96th Street. There, they must either execute a U-turn to avoid the restricted airspace around LaGuardia Airport or get permission from air traffic control to climb higher and continue north or turn west over Central Park.
Lidle’s plane slammed into the 30th and 31st stories of a luxury apartment building overlooking the East River, just a short distance from that turnaround point. Radar data indicated that the plane had begun a left turn, a quarter-mile north of the building, just before the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
1,100 feet may not be enough
The 1,100-foot ceiling is not necessarily high enough for an off-course pilot to clear some of Manhattan’s skyscrapers: The Empire State Building is 1,250 feet, the Chrysler Building 1,046 feet, the Citicorp building 915 feet.
Flight instructor Stanley Ferber of Brooklyn said that while the city’s airspace is bustling with “a myriad of helicopters and planes,” there is much more room than people on the ground realize.
“As a pilot, you always have to be on your toes, but it is not a tight situation,” he said. “In all the time of my flying over New York, I’ve never had anything like a close call.”
Still, he added, it isn’t a place to let your concentration wander — especially in the narrower corridor over the East River. There, the water narrows in many spots to less than a half-mile wide, with the skyscrapers of Manhattan to the west and LaGuardia’s airspace to the east, in Queens.
Ferber, 66, said that for reasons of comfort he prefers to fly in the loftier territory overseen by air traffic control, where he can take advantage of having those extra sets of eyes monitoring his position.
Jim Carroll, president of the Paramus Flying Club in New Jersey, said he also makes trips low over the East River more rarely, because of its “uncomfortably close” proximity to the big Queens airport. But “it’s not unsafely tight,” he said. “There is a sense of a lot of space and a lot of room.”
It is also tremendously beautiful.
Carroll’s sightseeing trips over the Hudson take him from the George Washington Bridge to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and include spectacular views of the city.
“I think it is a celebration of the right to be an American,” he said. “To take it away would be tremendously disappointing.”
The calls to do just that, or to at least restrict general aviation traffic, have mounted nevertheless.
Schumer wants more control
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has called for tighter rules, including a permanent closing of the Hudson River approach to the city and a requirement that low-flying aircraft submit a flight plan before entering New York airspace.
Weiner said all pilots flying near Manhattan should be required to be under the supervision of air traffic controllers. Most low-altitude flights over the island itself should be banned entirely, he said.
Unnerved residents of the apartment building struck by Lidle’s plane also complained about the proximity of aircraft to tall city buildings.
“I feel like I can see the pilot at times, it’s that close,” said Lillian Snower Beacham, who lives on the 36th floor.
Federal aviation accident records list relatively few general aviation accidents near Manhattan, considering the large numbers of craft flying.
Two helicopters rolled into the East River last year immediately after takeoff, causing injuries, but no deaths. There were fatal helicopter crashes in 1997 and 1990. Passengers escaped unhurt when a Cessna dove into the Hudson in 1988. Four people died when a seaplane and police helicopter collided over the East River in 1983.
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