August 9, 2009 in Nation/World

Air collision kills 9

Sightseer helicopter, plane fall into Hudson
Verena Dobnik Associated Press
The Spokesman-Review photo

In this image rendered from video and released by Fox News Channel, a small plane and a sightseeing helicopter carrying five Italian tourists are seen shortly after colliding above the Hudson River on Saturday.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Safety concern

 WASHINGTON – The collision that sent a sightseeing helicopter full of tourists and a small plane into the Hudson River on Saturday comes less than a month after a federal watchdog warned that safety oversight of sightseeing and other for-hire flights is too lax.

 The Department of Transportation’s inspector general sharply criticized the Federal Aviation Administration in the report for providing significantly weaker safety oversight of the “on-demand” flight industry – companies hired to fly aircraft, both helicopters and planes, that seat less than 30 people – than it does of the commercial airline industry.

NEW YORK – A small private plane collided with a sightseeing helicopter over the Hudson River on Saturday, scattering debris in the water and forcing thousands of people on the New Jersey waterfront to scamper for cover. Nine people on both aircraft were presumed dead.

A helicopter pilot refueling on the ground at the heliport for Liberty Tours, which operated the doomed sightseeing craft, saw the plane approaching the helicopter and tried to radio an alert to the pilots, police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. The warning wasn’t heard or didn’t happen in time.

“He radioed the accident helicopter and told him, ‘One-lima-hotel, you have a fixed wing behind you,’ ” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said Saturday. “There was no response.”

The collision, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg said was “not survivable,” happened just after noon and was seen by thousands of people enjoying a crystal-clear summer day from the New York and New Jersey sides of the river.

“First I saw a piece of something flying through the air. Then I saw the helicopter going down into the water,” said Kelly Owen, a Florida tourist at a Manhattan park. “I thought it was my imagination.”

The two aircraft – a plane carrying three people, including a child, and a helicopter with a pilot and five Italian tourists – went down just south of the stretch of river where a crippled US Airways jet landed safely in January. But this time there was no miracle.

“This is not going to have a happy ending,” Bloomberg said.

The air accident, the deadliest in the New York City area since the 2001 crash of a commercial jet in Queens killed 265 people, also raised questions about the heavily trafficked river corridors for small planes on both sides of Manhattan. Officials considered new restrictions for the aircraft after a 2006 small-plane crash killed New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor.

Three bodies from Saturday’s crash had been recovered before diving operations were suspended for the night, Hersman said. The helicopter’s wreckage had been found but not the plane, she said.

Tides and low visibility were compromising the recovery operation, she said. She warned residents not to touch pieces of debris that were likely to wash ashore.

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