FAA Allows NYC Tourist Choppers in Off-Limits Area

Thursday, Oct 13, 2011  |  Updated 1:04 PM EDT
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An air race above the Hudson River in 2010.

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The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday it's allowing sightseeing helicopters to descend through an airspace corridor over the Hudson River that's supposed to be off-limits to local air traffic.

The tour routes, which were first reported by the New York Post, are not published on aeronautical charts or the notices that pilots must consult when planning their flights through New York. On weekends, helicopters cut through the corridor dozens of times.

Aviation consultant Ken Pasker said other pilots don't expect helicopters to be descending through the corridor.

"If a helicopter comes at you, you wouldn't be expecting it," said Pasker, a pilot from Manhattan. "You wouldn't even know a helicopter was supposed to be in that area."

The corridor was set up after a sightseeing helicopter and a small aircraft collided over the river in 2009, killing nine people.

After the crash, the FAA modified an existing path over the river by barring local traffic between 1,000 feet and 1,300 feet above sea level. The new rule was meant to keep sightseeing helicopters out of the path of other small aircraft passing through the city.

But FAA managers signed an agreement on Aug. 16, 2010, allowing helicopters from five companies to fly above the 1,300-foot ceiling and descend through the corridor near Manhattan's 79th Street as part of their air tours.

There is nothing on aeronautical charts warning other pilots about the exemption for the five companies, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said.

"There are warnings to pilots that it's a congested area and to beware of helicopter activity, but that's the only warning," Peters said.

He said there were no immediate plans to include such a warning.

The five air tour companies asked for the routes because they allow the helicopters to fly higher, minimizing noise for people on the ground. They say the routes are safe.

"The plan was developed to ensure both the safety of these flights as well as to reduce the number of flights over sensitive areas and lower the impacts to the local communities," Jeffery Smith, chairman of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, which represents charter and sightseeing companies in the New York area, said in a written statement.

Concern over helicopter flights flared again in New York after a Bell 206 crashed in the East River shortly after takeoff on Oct. 4, killing a passenger. The helicopter was on a private flight and carried only friends of the pilot.

After the crash, several politicians called for a ban on private and sightseeing helicopter flights over the city.

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