2009 Fall

Helicopter Association International
President's Message
Matt Zuccaro, President, HAI

August in New York,
a Sad Summer's Day

As you know, a terrible tragedy took place in August over New York City. On a sunny summer's day, a helicopter and small airplane collided over the Hudson River, resulting in nine fatalities; a tragic event and terrible loss indeed. As to exactly what caused the accident, I will leave that to the experts at the NTSB.

Immediately following the event, headlines emerged declaring, "tragedy in Wild West airspace, cowboy pilots out of control." Next there came the "talking heads," experts who suddenly appear on television and radio, expressing their wisdom but with such caveats as, "Although I have never flown helicopters or airplanes," or, "Even though I have not flown in complex airspace, certainly not NYC." One individual, seeking his 15 minutes of television fame, stopped his statement and asked the news anchor, "By the way, are you showing the link to my consulting company Web page on the screen?" Many unhesitatingly stated the accident cause, and action that should be taken; interesting that such statements were made absent any facts, with rescue personnel still in the water. I think serious consideration should be given to changing the name of these individuals, from "Talking Heads" to a more fitting name which better reflects the part of the anatomy I think they are actually talking from.

Although other industry representatives and I provided comment, it apparently was not what the press, public, and elected officials wanted to hear. Not surprising, a press conference was called by elected officials along the river with rescue workers in the water behind them. They offered a cause of the accident, spoke of their perceived dangers of the airspace, and recommended a stop to all aircraft operations. Special hearings were subsequently convened by the NYC Council Transportation Subcommittee, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives — at which I testified.

My frustration is the lack of facts, history, and logic displayed by the news media, elected officials, the public, and unfortunately our own industry. I think this complete overreaction to aircraft accidents occurs because such events are so rare, and people are surprised when they do occur. Imagine if everyone reacted this way to vehicular accidents. All roads would be shut down, and all vehicle operations prohibited.

Case in point; about the same time as this aviation accident, a mother driving under the influence of alcohol just north of Manhattan, in the wrong direction, caused a head on collision resulting in the death of five children and four adults. I did not notice any elected official holding press conferences on the roadway; no hearings were held, nor were there demands to install available technology to prevent vehicles from being started by drunk drivers — even though drunk driving kills thousands each year. However, when a midair collision in airspace that has accommodated millions of safe operations for over 25 years occurs, those with a predisposition against general aviation seem to ignore facts and logic to advance their real agenda, whatever that may be.

I sincerely believe that one accident is one too many. I also believe that the response should be appropriate, measured, and predicated on historical data and investigative results that will actually enhance safety. Not on feel good, politically correct, non-effective initiatives with unintended consequences that could actually reduce safety.

There is good in this story as well. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), under the direction of Administrator Babbitt, immediately convened a NY Airspace Task Force, which I was privileged to serve on. The sole intent of the group was to examine the airspace and operations within, seeking to enhance safety. The effort was fast tracked with all resources available. The resulting reasoned and logical recommendations, supported by industry (and the NTSB in most aspects) are scheduled to go into effect a little over three months after the accident occurred. This is how the system should work, and it did.

Having spent much of my adult life flying helicopters and airplanes within the NYC airspace, I can say that this airspace has been a safe environment for many years. I, and thousands of other pilots, would not have flown there if we did not believe this. The new changes will enhance safety, and I await the final NTSB report to see if we can make it even safer. After all, pilots have the most at risk; we are the ones in the aircraft all the time.

For a reality check; let us not forget Paul Smith, former HAI Safety Committee Chairman. Paul spent almost 25 years safely flying helicopters in this airspace. Tragically he was killed by a runaway taxi on a midtown Manhattan street.

That is my story, and I am sticking to it. What are your thoughts — I sincerely want to know. Whether you agree or disagree, email me at TAILROTOR@AOL.COM, and let me know what is going on in your world. As always have a Safe Flight and Fly Neighborly.

Best regards

Matt Zuccaro is President of HAI.

The HAI President's Message is a supplement to RotorNews.
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