Midair Crash Warnings Sought for Air-Tour Hot Spots Like NYC

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Planes carrying tourists in busy sightseeing corridors including New York City and Hawaii should be required to carry traffic-monitoring devices to prevent deadly midair collisions, such as one over Alaska in 2019, accident investigators said Tuesday.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said existing technology could dramatically lower risks if air tour operators were required to use it.

The pilots involved in the Alaska crash had difficulties seeing each other while flying in a congested area and the equipment in their cockpits wasn’t capable of warning them, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said in a virtual meeting.

“It ends up as a formula for disaster,” Sumwalt said during a board meeting to determine the cause of the crash that killed six people.

Midair Crash Warnings Sought for Air-Tour Hot Spots Like NYC

The action is the latest by the board to improve safety in the air-tour industry, which has suffered some of the deadliest crashes in the U.S. in the past decade.

The NTSB called on the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to identify the busiest air tour sites in the U.S. and require that air-tour operators in those areas install anti-collision technology that’s similar to what airliners have used for decades.

The FAA, which regulates the aviation industry, had reached many of the same conclusions after the May 13, 2019, crashes of two planes near Ketchikan and is studying the feasibility of requiring the technology on air tours, it said in an emailed statement.

In addition to possible new requirements for equipment, the FAA is also considering increasing surveillance of air-tour operators, requiring passengers wear life vests and revising safety checklists.

“The FAA will carefully consider all of today’s recommendations from the NTSB as that work continues,” the agency said.

While the NTSB recommendation was triggered by the Alaska accident, the safety board has investigated several other such accidents. Those included a 2009 collision between a small private plane and a tour helicopter over the Hudson River near New York City that killed nine people.

Midair collisions are a rare but deadly form of accident that have been all but eliminated among airliners as a result of cockpit technology and monitoring by air-traffic controllers.

The air-tour industry, which operates in congested areas without controllers looking over their shoulders, has a history of midair collisions that’s significantly higher than other types of flights, the NTSB found. Fatal midair crashes are 2% of all aircraft accidents, but 7% of those involving sightseeing flights, a rate that’s more than three times higher.

Even though pilots are taught from day one to “see and avoid” other traffic, investigations since the 1950s have demonstrated they are prone to distractions or the limits of cockpit visibility. The Alaska accident demonstrated how a collision could occur to well-meaning crews flying on a clear, sunny day.

“These issues with see and avoid have been with us for literally all of my life,” Sumwalt said.

Both planes -- a De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd. DHC-2 Beaver and a De Havilland DHC-3 Turbine Otter -- were equipped with technology that transmitted their position so they could be tracked by other nearby pilots, but the system on one plane was partially disabled during maintenance and had never been switched back on, the NTSB found.

Additionally, while technology allowed for automated warnings of an impending collision and was required during an earlier test program, the FAA changed the rules when the devices were updated and eliminated the requirement, according to investigators.

As a result, it appeared alerts didn’t sound in either plane, the NTSB said. Simulations showed alerts would have sounded in time to prevent the collision.

It also appeared neither pilot could see the other plane as they gradually converged. A dramatic photo taken about one second before impact by a passenger in the smaller plane shows how the pilots might not have seen each other.

An enlarged segment of the photo showing the DHC-3 appears to show the forehead of that plane’s pilot, his eyes obscured by the craft’s window frame. That suggests his vision was blocked from seeing the other plane, the NTSB said.

Similarly, the wing on the DHC-2 and a passenger in the right, front seat would have mostly blocked the view of that pilot, the NTSB said.

All five people on the DHC-2 died after it broke apart. The larger DHC-3, which was equipped with pontoons, made an emergency landing on a nearby inlet. One of its passengers died, nine suffered serious injuries and the pilot had minor injuries.

The cause was the inherent difficulty pilots have seeing other aircraft combined with the lack of a cockpit alert, the NTSB said.

The NTSB didn’t specify where anti-collision technology should be required, but said the busiest air-tour sites were around New York City, the Grand Canyon, and locations in Alaska and Hawaii.

On March 23, the NTSB, citing the deaths of more than 40 people, issued six recommendations on seeking tighter regulations over certain lightly regulated air tour categories.

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