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Aviation Safety in Urban Airspace: Observing New York’s Helicopter Crash

A deadly helicopter crash in New York has raised concerns over aviation safety in urban airspace. Can there be safe air navigation in the urban jungle?

Last week (10 June 2019), a helicopter crashed onto the roof of an office building on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, New York. The aircraft burst into flames and the pilot was unfortunately killed.

News reports indicate that the helicopter was flying in a restricted area, and that the Federal Aviation Administration had placed restrictions on flights in the area after the 2016 election of U.S. President Donald Trump.

aviation safety over urban airspace

The helicopter that crashed in New York was reportedly in violation of several aviation regulations. Photo source: Viator.

Reports also emerged that the pilot, Tim McCormack, was not certified to fly in poor weather where there was limited visibility. He was only authorised to fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), requiring generally clear weather.

The regulations required at least three miles (about 4.8 kilometres) of visibility and the sky to be clear of clouds. The visibility on 10 June, however, was about 1.25 miles (about 2 kilometres)

Aviation safety over urban airspace in Australia

In Australia, the Civil Aviation Regulations 1988 (Cth) (CAR) are very clear.

CAR rule 157 says that aircraft must not fly over any city, town or populous area at a height lower than 1,000 feet.

CASA’s VFR Guide also lists a range of exceptions to that rule, such as if there is a stress of weather leading to low flying being unavoidable, if the aircraft is in aerial work operations requiring low flying, if the pilot is engaging in a baulked approach procedure and more.

However, the 1000 feet rule does not apply to a helicopter flying at a designated altitude within an access lane. This includes, for example, a flight path in controlled airspace. Such details are published in the AIP or NOTAMs used by helicopters arriving or departing from a specified place.

These regulations were introduced in response to a fatal helicopter crash in Sydney in 1966. An ABC helicopter was recording footage for a documentary, but it lost the rear rotor and started to spin uncontrollably.

Aviation regulations changed significantly after the 1966 crash over Circular Quay. Photo source: ABC.

It crashed into Circular Quay, and the cameraman was tragically killed. Now, helicopter access over built-up areas are restricted. Aircraft that are permitted to fly through dense urban areas include emergency medical service operators, as instrument procedures are put in place at hospitals allowing them to navigate safely.

Are aviation safety and urban airspace impossible to combine?

New York’s mayor called for toughening aviation regulations and putting more security as to avoid this situation again. He also urged for a “full ban on any helicopters going over Manhattan itself” (apart from news reporters and emergency responders).

Going to such lengths might be an overreach. The New York crash appears to have occurred because of a violation of air regulations which already exist to keep the city safe.

It is vital for any pilot to be aware of the rules and follow the rules when flying. Only then can aviation safety be maximised to its full potential in an urban airspace environment.

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