Gotham Gazette

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New York’s Wrongly Open Skies

open op

helicopters in Manhattan (photo: Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Helicopter crashes in the skies of New York City — two in 2019 —temporarily bring renewed attention to the odd situation by which hundreds of vehicles weighing up to 12,000 pounds each fly low every day over the country’s densest city, a city that was attacked from the air in 2001.

Precisely how many flights there are, by whom, and for what purpose are secrets kept by New York City’s Economic Development Corporation, which oversees three heliports on behalf of their owner, New York City.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer says that complaints about helicopter noise and pollution are constant, and have been for years. And even though we are all now subject to time-consuming and sometimes intrusive searches to board planes at airports, passengers and pilots on helicopters undergo only the most cursory security procedures.

The recent helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others occurred north of Los Angeles, on the other side of the country, yet the catastrophe holds several sobering parallels for New York.

Dangerous Terrain
Burdened with the nation’s busiest airspaces, both L.A. and New York City also have dangerous, sky-high terrain that helicopters must avoid. LA has mountains, New York has skyscrapers.

Bryant’s helicopter lacked a Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS), as do many, perhaps most, helicopters flying over New York. Even though the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has long urged that warning systems be mandated, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the federal agency regulating helicopters, has resisted, saying that because helicopters fly so close to buildings a TAWS would produce too many false alarms. Both L.A. and New York are also subject to the thick marine layer and dense fog that were factors in the Bryant crash.

Frequent Commuting
Bryant was commuting by helicopter, a practice that is increasingly common in New York, and for the same set of reasons: clogged and unpleasant ground transportation.

As the LA Times noted recently, the customer base for heli-commuting “skews rich, famous and traffic-averse.” Private entrepreneurs have eagerly responded to demand. As Jeff Holden, Uber’s Chief Product Officer, said, “So far we’ve been focused on ground-based transportation, but then we asked ourselves: Why can’t we fly today? Why can’t we take to the air? It’s not a matter of if, but when,” which was July of last year.

And not just Uber. “There isn’t gridlock in the sky,” says Rob Wiesenthal, the founder and chief executive of Blade, the vanguard company flying luxurious helicopters to the airports, the Hamptons, and Nantucket told the Wall Street Journal. Voom CEO Clément Monnet claims to be improving “people’s lives by giving them access to the air.”

Lightly Regulated
The twin-engine Sikorsky S-76B, a familiar vehicle to sky-watching New Yorkers who can see the big white helis regularly power across Manhattan, is owned by charter company Island Express Helicopters. Like all L.A.-based charter companies, Island’s FAA operating certification limits its pilots to flying under visual flight rules, which require a half-mile of daytime visibility and the ability to see the ground. The company lacked certification for its pilots to fly with instruments, the system for operating in fog or clouds. But the FAA seldom penalizes this violation, letting helicopter companies operate on a self-regulatory basis.

And it’s worth remembering that the above factors were also central to New York’s June 10, 2019 horror when a helicopter burst into flames after smashing into the fog-shrouded roof of a 7th Avenue office building. That pilot was also not authorized to fly using only instruments. He shouldn’t have been flying at all in the rainstorm.

Worse, the helicopter company whose March 2018 doors-off flight crashed into the East River, killing five tourists, is still flying, unimpeded — unchallenged even — by federal regulators. A report by the National Transportation Safety Board in mid-December of this year placed the blame for the accident on the company, which had bypassed strict standards for sightseeing tours by falsely categorizing its flights as photographic in purpose, which has far looser regulations. And it had installed deficient harnesses, said the NTSB, that locked each tourist in place, pinning them helplessly as the helicopter turned over in the frigid water.

There’s a fundamental reason New Yorkers should be concerned about what’s happening in the skies of Los Angeles: like all American cities, neither L.A. nor New York controls its own skies. Skies are the purview of the federal government, which might in itself be OK, except that regarding helicopters and other low-flying aircraft the federal government has simultaneously asserted its authority and refused to regulate on any significant level. If any kind of serious reform — and that includes serious regulation — is to come to the helicopter industry it will have to begin in the big cities.

Yet despite a few rhetorical flourishes from Mayor Bill de Blasio denouncing commercial helicopter flights, City Hall has taken no recent steps to curtail flights.

Basically, anyone can fly through New York skies unless the federal government intervenes and says they can’t. But the federal government now and pretty much forever has been loath to restrict flights — even in the aftermath of 9/11. And even the city’s occasional attempts to control quality-of-life issues like noise and pollution have been restricted, originally by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 1997, when she was a district judge.

In National Helicopter v City of New York, she permanently enjoined the city from imposing a mandatory 47% reduction in helicopter operations at the East 34th Street Heliport, designating tourist sightseeing routes, excluding Sikorsky S-58Ts from sightseeing flights, and mandating that all helicopters be marked for identification. A federal appellate court subsequently allowed the city to restrict operations, but permitted the ban on markings to stand.

This alone is a huge issue, and one that Borough President Brewer has been fighting for years. Federal regulations require that helicopters be individually identified, but the city (and Brewer) wanted the identification to be visible, painted in large digits — much like NYPD patrol cars or MTA buses — so that New Yorkers would know what was flying above them, hovering over Shakespeare in the Park performances or racing up and down West End Avenue on Sunday mornings.

Are these flights for tourism? Corporate commuting? Paparazzo? Government? Media? Police and emergency? We can’t know. Central Park, so precious to New Yorkers as a peaceful haven, is to the FAA a helicopter corridor. The FAA’s Central Park Route runs from West 72nd Street to the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, thus the many complaints Brewer’s office receives from Upper West and Upper East Siders.

What’s to be done?
The simplest, most direct solution would be for the FAA to issue Temporary Flight Restrictions forbidding flights over New York City, as it has done for Disneyland, of all places. But this is unlikely to happen. The FAA is what political scientists call a “clientele agency,” meaning their main mission is to protect rather than regulate the clientele industry.

Led by Rep. Jerry Nadler, New York’s congressional delegation has repeatedly introduced legislation to ban nonessential flights over New York City, the most recent being the Helicopter Safety Act. But what is nonessential? The FAA has repeatedly ruled that any transportation use, including commuting, is valid, and under the bill helicopter flights deemed essential would still be allowed, including law enforcement, emergency response, disaster response, medical services, or “for the public interest,” which is undefined.

It’s possible that even if Nadler’s bill passes, New York will be left with tens of thousands of flights deemed essential.

Technology can help. Flight tracking services, like FlightRadar24, provide real-time data on thousands of flights around the world, but also in your neighborhood, telling you which aircraft models are flying, as well as their origin and destination. At peak hours, the FlightRadar24 map of Manhattan looks like it’s infested with insects, as the tiny helicopter emoji crowd one another all over the borough.

The app is not yet sophisticated enough to catch every flight, especially for the low-flying aircraft that especially distress New Yorkers. But you’ll often see helis on the app hovering over city parks, monuments, and waterfront areas where taxpayers have invested billions of dollars. As former New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe says, “Taxpayer investment in parks is being ruthlessly undermined by the ongoing blight of helicopter flights.”

The first step in reform is to get the information: how many flights, by whom, in what aircraft models, for what purpose? What are their routes? How low are they flying?

NYCEDC keeps some generic data, which it publishes reluctantly and rarely, on its three city-owned heliports. But no agency releases data on the thousands of flights coming in from outside New York City’s borders, mainly New Jersey and Long Island, but increasingly upstate New York and New England. And if the on-demand flight services get their way, soon there will be more flights from more distant points.

Government agencies refuse to release their data, but a citizens’ brigade of heli watchers, armed with flight tracking apps, could provide enough of the data to demonstrate the extent and precise geographic locations of the issues.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a writer and planner. On Twitter @JuliaManhattan.

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