Airplanes and Helicopters Don’t Mix

Accidents happen.

As the New York Times reports in  “Tourist Helicopter and Small Plane Collide Over Hudson River“:

A small private plane carrying three people and a New York tourist helicopter carrying six collided in midair and plunged into the Hudson River off the West Side of Manhattan just after noon on Saturday. At least two people were confirmed dead, the authorities said, and a search was on for the others.

One of the reasons helicopters tend to fly lower than airplanes is to do something that’s drummed into our heads: avoid the flow of fixed wing traffic. This accident is tragic on so many levels, but it would not have occurred if the plane was flying at the altitude it should have been at.

Indeed, this isn’t the first time an airplane and helicopter have collided. On June 18, 1986, a DeHaviland DHC-6 collided with a Bell 206B helicopter over the Grand Canyon, killing 25 people. Both aircraft were conducting tours over the canyon. As a result of this accident, tour routes were established with separate altitudes for airplanes (8,000 feet MSL) and helicopters (7,500 feet MSL) over the Grand Canyon.

There’s some talk that the airplane in the New York City accident today might have been in some distress and perhaps it was losing altitude. Hopefully, investigators will gather information about how it happened. I can understand how the helicopter pilot may not have seen the airplane at his altitude, especially if he had just taken off and was still at low level, just climbing out. A helicopter pilot doesn’t expect to see airplanes at low level. But that’s no excuse to see and avoid other traffic.

5 thoughts on “Airplanes and Helicopters Don’t Mix

  1. You state:

    “This accident is tragic on so many levels, but it would not have occurred if the plane was flying at the altitude it should have been at”

    What altitude should the airplane had been at? Can you site a regulation or local procedure? What altitude should the helicopter been at?

    • Airplane safe altitudes are listed in the FARs. I’m not an airplane pilot, but seem to recall those altitudes being around 1,000 feet. The rules could be different over the Hudson River, as I think the maximum altitude in the corridor is only 1100 feet. Helicopters do not have minimum altitudes, however most Part 135 helicopter operators remain above 300 feet AGL in cruise flight. In any case, if the helicopter was just taking off — as was reported by the media — the airplane must have been very low to hit it.

  2. Excerpt from the NTSB initial report:

    “The tower controller advised the airplane and the pilot of another
    helicopter operating in the area of each other and instructed the
    pilot of the airplane to remain at or below 1,100 feet.”

    Obviously, the pilot of the fixed wing was at the appropriate altitude for his mission as instructed by ATC. In fact, he was at his maximum altitude assigned by ATC most likely for the purpose of staying out of the way of helicopter traffic operating BELOW.

    My question to you is: “Why would the helicopter ascend to maximum altitude for that airspace when his mission clearly does not call for it, a 12-minute sight seeing flight?

  3. Maria,

    The Lance had been maintaining 1100′, just at the top of the Class E airspace and immediately below the Class B floor, in level cruise. It appears from a video that the helicopter climbed up to the airplane’s altitude just ahead of it. We can’t see immediately ahead of and below our airplanes, as the fuselage and engine are in the way, unlike a helicopter’s bubble canopy with its excellent visibility.

    • Apparently, a lot of airplane pilots seem to think it’s necessary to discuss this accident here.

      My blog post was written right after the accident occurred — less than 12 hours afterwards. The information provided by the media — that the airplane hit the helicopter right after the helicopter took off — led me (and others, I assume) to believe that the airplane was flying low enough to be in the helicopter’s departure path. If that’s not the case, your arguments should be with the media for spreading misinformation. I just hope the NTSB comes uncovers the FACTS and presents them where the media might consider sharing them with a misinformed public.

      To insinuate that the helicopter should have seen the airplane — when the airplane clearly came up BEHIND the helicopter, as shown in videos — is ridiculous. Yes, we have a great view, but that view is NOT behind us. We have blind spots, too.

      Right now, the media is blaming everyone they can, from the pilot not monitoring the incorrect frequency (or not monitoring any frequency at all; volume turned down?), to the controller on the telephone, to the helicopter operator for operating an “on demand” (and therefore dangerous, according to the media) tour business.

      As I started out my blog post, accidents happen. It’s an unfortunate part of life. Instead of spending time pointing fingers, why don’t we investigate the REAL cause of the crash and use it as a learning experience to avoid similar accidents in the future?