Second day reaction on the Hudson River air crash

Why this crash happened, in a "who was thinking what" sense, may not be known for a long time if ever. But the mechanical description of the crash sequence now seems clearer. The NYT has another of its useful aviation disaster graphics attached to this story. The graphic itself is a pop-up that is tricky to link to directly, so with full acknowledgment that this comes from the NYT site and with encouragement to you go to there directly, here's what it shows:


The airplane left Teterboro and headed for the Hudson; it leveled off at 1100 feet, which is the maximum altitude along much of the "VFR Flyway" for "uncontrolled" flight (explained here) along the Hudson; and for whatever reason it made a left turn and hit the helicopter from behind and below. This is a terrible tragedy for all involved, and sympathies to those families. Two points about the reaction:

- I am impressed by the realism and the relatively calm tone of this NYT story about how planes usually operate in the Hudson corridor. Here's why I'm somewhat surprised:

To someone with no experience controlling cars or trucks, it would seem incredible that drivers could whiz past each other in opposite directions on a two-lane road and not have head-on collisions all the time. They're so close to each other! How can it possibly be safe? Isn't anyone in control? And in fact, tens of thousands of people do die in road crashes each year. But since most people know about cars, they understand how drivers can watch out for other vehicles, how two-way traffic can usually be safe, and what kind of mistake, misjudgment, recklessness, or sheer bad luck can lead to a head-on crash.

But when it comes to aviation, relatively few people have first-hand experience steering planes or watching out for other aerial traffic. And because air disasters, when they happen, are so gruesome, it's natural for most people to think: they're so close to each other! How can it possibly be safe? Isn't anyone in control? In fact, avoiding collisions in the air is, in terms of sheer reflexes required, less demanding than avoiding them on the road. (Landing an airplane is more demanding than most aspects of driving; simply flying an airplane is not.) If you lose attention for five seconds in a car, you can be in serious trouble. In airplanes there's usually a lot more time to see what's coming toward you and decide how to avoid a problem. It's more like operating a boat in a harbor than like driving a car on a road. This may be why Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- who has trained extensively as a helicopter and airplane pilot (his certificate info here) -- struck the calmest note in the NYT story. He said, essentially: this is a terrible tragedy, and while we have to look for causes, it doesn't mean we have to go crazy or shut everything down. More or less the way car drivers respond after a road tragedy.

- I am less impressed by this AP story that tries to find a regulatory-negligence aspect to the disaster. The purported revelation is a recent Department of Transportation study showing that "on demand" air carriers, like the helicopter-tour company, are supervised less carefully than mainstream airlines are. Frankly, I would hope that airlines are always the most heavily-scrutinized part of the system, given how many more passengers' lives are at stake.

Let's agree that regulatory and safety-procedure issues may have played a large part in the terrible Colgan crash in Buffalo this last winter. And that there could be systematic problems in the on-demand flight business. Still: I'm willing to bet a lot of money that nothing whatsoever about this Hudson crash was related in any way to regulation of the helicopter company. After a disaster, it's natural to look for any factor that might in any way be related. But this is a huge logical stretch and a kind of scare-mongering.

On the other hand, the same AP writer did a very good story earlier this week about the latest development in the Air France crash over the Atlantic in June: the possibility that there is a systematic problem with the airspeed-sensing system in Airbus airplanes, which could have contributed to this and other incidents with Airbuses. More on that as it develops; no more on the Hudson crash unless there is new info. Again condolences.