F E A T U R E nouncements that say, “We can control this, and we will!” I agree. That’s why we have the theater. But no one goes to the theater anymore, do they? So why not have our elected leaders enact for us instead? And if that’s how you like to deal with a panic attack, you can feel mighty relaxed now, because our leaders are prepared for inaction. The fact that their demands are technically unfeasible, would likely degrade safety at adjacent Kennedy, Newark and LaGuardia Airports (not to mention in the Corridor), and are downright deluded should concern no one who needs to deal with anxiety rather than reality.
asking about the Archer, concerned about a potential conflict involving the aircraft he sees on his radar. The Archer, approaching the Eurocopter from behind, was outside the helicopter pilot’s field of vision. About 13 seconds after the call from Newark Tower to Teterboro the two aircraft collide.
Unfortunately the pols’ performance didn’t make for great theater. Because that requires an animate villain, someone the audience can hiss. The pols should have brought along some sacrificial lamb who didn’t care about getting reelected or was about to be embroiled in a scandal anyway, to get up and say something like, “I think tour helicopter operators flying in the Hudson Corridor should be equipped with TCAS” or “Let’s remember the Corridor diverts traffic away from flying nearer to our commercial airports, where the safety risks might be greater.” After all, mass hysteria of one sort of another – panic, scandal, grief - is about the only way we as a people commune anymore. No one wants a buzz kill trying to calm things down with logic and reason. The goal is to get the merely anxious to join the purely panicked, not the other way around.
You can see why it’s a good thing the pols didn’t wait for the facts to hold their Chicken Little convention.
Hey Chuck, do you think the pilot’s attempt to get radar coverage like you demand all pilots get played a role in this accident? Yo, Mr. Stringer, can we really add this to the “pattern of tragedy” aviation’s see and avoid safety strategy has wrought without putting an asterisk next to it?
But New York can claim no monopoly on aviation knee-jerk, as the increasing ability and efficiency of single engine aircraft to empty public structures nationwide attests. In Madison, Wisconsin last April the state capitol building was evacuated after a stolen C-172 from Canada crossed the border and came close to the city. Capitol Police told state workers and visitors to “get as far away as possible” from the building, according to the Associated Press. Not to be outdone, that same month the U.S. Capitol building was evacuated when a Piper Cub strayed into Washington’s airspace. I picture scenes from a Fifties sci-fi movie where the arrival of aliens in D.C. is dramatized by a montage of a crowd streaming down the steps of the Capitol, hordes sprinting down the street, casting terrified looks over their shoulders, and immobilized drivers leaning on car horns in a mass traffic jam. The one false note in transposing those sci-fi montages to current times is the Commander in Chief shot. They always showed the president (from the back, of course) meeting about the threat with his cabinet, the Capitol building framed in the window in the background. That’s fine if it’s just space aliens you’re dealing with, but we’re talking about a single engine airplane here! And that means lock down. That was the reaction at the White House to the errant Piper Cub. The president was probably whisked to a secure wine cellar in the bowels of the White House, while the cabinet members were left to duck and cover under the desk in the cabinet room. And of course whenever one of these stray aircraft drifts near the area, F-16s and a Blackhawk helicopter or two are dispatched to intercept it.
GA, ever the whipping boy for commercial aviation’s failures, had best be prepared for the regulatory equivalent of a full cavity body search.
And it’s a good thing the politicians didn’t wait to open their mouths. Because if they had, it would have been too late to make their “all filed, all flight followed” demand. Or it would have made their plan sound as dumb as it is. Because within days of the Fear Factor press conference, the NTSB’s investigation revealed that the pilot of the Archer was in fact in radar contact with controllers, and at the moment the collision occurred was in the midst of dealing with a botched handoff from Teterboro to Newark Tower. The tape and transcript of the Teterboro Tower communications reveal the errors and unprofessionalism that doubtless contributed to the accident. (http://www.faa.gov/ data_research/accident_incident/2009-08-08/). But perhaps more importantly, this record underscores the danger posed by grandstanding rule makers and knee-jerk. The Teterboro Tower tape follows the Piper Archer as the pilot prepares for departure from the airport, located just west of the Corridor, asks for flight following, and later receives the controller’s handoff to Newark Tower. Then two unfortunate circumstances collide before the Archer and Eurocopter do. The pilot mishears the frequency, and the Teterboro controller is preoccupied with a phone conversation he is simultaneously conducting with a girlfriend. Engaged in his jovial flirtatious banter about scraping dead animals off pavement, by the time the controller finishes what he’s saying to his woman friend to correct the pilot’s read back, it’s too late. That beat you pause in the cockpit before changing frequencies precisely to wait for that type of correction has passed. The Archer pilot is “lost in the hertzes,” as the Teterboro controller says seconds later to the Newark Tower controller who calls
M ay / J u n e 2 0 1 0
A couple of problems with this knee-jerk response. Let’s give security officials the benefit of the doubt and concede they actually believe a single engine aircraft – even a Piper Cub, which qualifies as an LSA today - poses a grave threat to the physical structure of these massive buildings and the lives of those inside. (As a postscript, the results of the despicable kamikaze attack on the glass walled IRS office complex in Austin, Texas in February illustrates the difficulty of causing catastrophic damage to a structure with such an aircraft.) If so, their reaction is entirely inappropriate and counter-productive. That Piper Cub got within three miles of the White House! What if those onboard had evil intentions? Or if those with evil intentions are watching? What do they see? A plane coming within spitting distance of these deceptively