Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Midair Over The Hudson

One digit in a radio frequency might have made all the difference

The Piper had taken off from Wings Field Airport, Philadelphia, Penn., stopped at Teterboro Airport (TEB), N.J., to pick up a passenger, and was destined for Ocean City Municipal Airport, Ocean City, N.J. The helicopter’s local sightseeing flight originated at the West 30th Street Heliport in Manhattan.

The Piper pilot radioed the clearance delivery controller at the Teterboro tower and requested departure clearance with a cruise altitude of 3,500 feet and flight-following services. The pilot then contacted the local controller, advising he was ready to taxi.

While the airplane was taxiing, the local controller asked the pilot whether he was “gonna be requesting…VFR down the river to Ocean City or just…southwest bound.” The pilot replied that he’d take whichever route was the most direct. The local controller radioed, “Okay just…let me know so I know who [to] coordinate [the] handoff with,” to which the pilot responded, “I’ll take down the river, [that would] be fine.”

A routing over the Hudson River with a climb to 3,500 feet would have required clearance into Class B airspace. The pilot would have to get the clearance from a controller at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) after the Teterboro controller executed a handoff.

At the time of the accident, there was a VFR exclusion area in the Class B airspace that allowed uncontrolled VFR flight above the Hudson River up to and including 1,100 feet MSL. The Class B airspace overlying TEB begins at an altitude of 1,800 feet.

At 11:48 a.m., the pilot radioed the TEB tower that he was ready for takeoff. The pilot was told to make a left turn to the southeast (to avoid entering EWR airspace and the final approach course for EWR runway 22) and maintain 1,100 feet or below.

At 11:50:02, the TEB local controller identified the airplane on radar, and executed an electronic radar handoff of the airplane to the EWR Class B airspace controller. The controller didn’t transfer radio communications.

An electronic radar handoff transfers a radar data block from one controller to another. A controller initiates this process by “flashing” the radar data block to the receiving controller. When the new controller accepts the handoff, the radar data block no longer flashes and is modified so that both controllers know that the handoff is complete. Only after this is done is the pilot told to change to the new controller’s frequency.

At 11:50:32, the TEB controller telephoned a female in Teterboro Airport operations and began a conversation that was unrelated to his work. He also had been on the phone with her earlier. While on the phone, at 11:51:17, the controller told the Piper pilot to start a left turn to join the Hudson River, which the pilot acknowledged. At that time, the Piper had leveled off at 1,100 feet according to radar data.


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