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NYC crash renews fears about tourist helicopters
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10:02, August 12, 2009

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Buzzing through some of the world's busiest airspace, New York's sightseeing helicopters give tourists a bird's-eye view of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty.

A 12-minute tour can go for $200 a person. But a collision involving a chopper and a private plane has renewed doubts about whether the flights are worth the cost to safety.

Still, even the crash that killed nine people didn't stop the brisk business in aerial tours. Just an hour after their own helicopter went down on Saturday, Liberty Helicopters employees were still handing out pamphlets advertising rides to tourists. One sightseer wasn't deterred by the accident above the Hudson River.

"We'd still really like to go," said David Bernard, from Paris. "I think I'm not afraid because it happens very rarely."

The increasingly popular sightseeing tours attract hundreds of thousands of people each year, and business has boomed over the past decade.

A city councilwoman is pressing to ban tourist helicopter trips over Manhattan. Others are floating ideas such as requiring choppers to carry collision-avoidance equipment and assigning them different altitudes from planes.

This Aug. 8, 2009 file photo shows a New York City Police helicopter hovering low over the Hudson River as it drops a police diver into the river in New York.[Agencies]

Mayor Michael Bloomberg casts the sightseeing flights as an economic asset, and helicopter pilots say they have a strong safety record. Though some pilots support further safety measures, they caution against pushing for changes before authorities determine what caused Saturday's crash.

They may not find "that the flaw here is the airspace," said Itai Shoshani, chief pilot of Zip Aviation, which flies helicopter tours from Manhattan.

On Tuesday, authorities recovered the last two bodies from the wreckage of the collision. Police spokesman Paul Browne said investigators believe the bodies were those of the plane pilot and a passenger.

Since Manhattan's first public heliport opened in 1956, the skies above the city have become a thoroughfare for choppers that carry sightseers, shuttle businesspeople to airports, and ferry well-to-do residents to the Hamptons and other destinations. Police, film crews and news organizations also hover in the air.

But tourism accounted for about three-quarters of the 409,325 people who took off from Manhattan's three helipads last year, according to the city Economic Development Corp.

The helicopter tour business has grown by about 50 percent in the last decade, though it appears to be dipping significantly this year because of the recession, the agency said.

The flights — including about two dozen sightseeing helicopters, charter operations and other on-demand aviation — bring more than $290 million a year to the city, the EDC estimates.

Bloomberg underscored the tours' financial appeal Monday, saying "All of these are things that tourists like, and we need tourists very much."

Despite the traffic, collisions between aircraft are rare over the city. The last came in 1983, when a Cessna seaplane coming in for a landing on the East River collided with a police helicopter over the Brooklyn waterfront, killing four people.

Sightseeing helicopters have been involved in other types of accidents, however, some of them fatal. Passengers drowned after tour helicopters lost power over the East River in 1985 and 1988.

The company that owned the chopper involved in Saturday's crash, Liberty Helicopters, has had eight accidents since 1995, according to the NTSB. None were deadly except Saturday's.

The company had no immediate comment Wednesday on its safety history and is awaiting the National Transportation Safety Board's findings before weighing in on ideas for regulating the airspace, spokeswoman Marcia Horowitz said Tuesday.

After the collision, city councilwoman Gale Brewer renewed calls to banish tourist helicopters from Manhattan.

"These flights are loud, low and dangerous," said Brewer, whose constituents on Manhattan's West Side have long complained about chopper noise.

Helicopter pilots say they strive to make the flights safe. They point to voluntary safety measures they developed for flying over the Hudson, particularly a series of checkpoints such as the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel entrance. At those landmarks, pilots of all aircraft are asked to radio their position on a shared frequency.

They say tour pilots and others who fly in the zone regularly adhere to the practice.

"We want to make our workplace as safe as possible for both ourselves and our passengers," said Matt Zuccaro, a former New York City helicopter pilot who now heads the Helicopter Association International, a trade group.

Still, some pilots embrace some ideas that have been broached since Saturday's collision.

Shoshani believes all should have collision-avoidance systems, which he has installed on all three of his company's helicopters.

The technology "has definitely saved my (aircraft) many times," he said.

Pilot Charlie Cosenza said he would not be able to afford such a system, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, for his Staten Island Helicopters' sole aircraft.

The former New York Police Department helicopter and jet airline pilot uses a less sophisticated, $1,800 device and isn't certain how much more effective a full-fledged collision system would be.

Another suggestion, assigning helicopters and small planes to different altitudes over the Hudson, also gets mixed reviews.

The helicopters might well end up at lower levels, counteracting efforts in recent years to fly them higher to lessen noise, said Robert Grotell, a spokesman for the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, a local industry group.

The Federal Aviation Administration has regulated low-flying aircraft on the East River since a 2006 plane crash that killed New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor.

But Bloomberg suggested Monday that air traffic controllers would be hard-pressed to do the same on the Hudson.

"There are practical considerations," he said. "There is also the consideration that if you have positive control, that's not guaranteeing that two aircraft won't collide, either."

Source: China Daily

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