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Nine Lives Needlessly Lost

Nine people died last weekend when a single-engine airplane collided with a sightseeing helicopter above the Hudson River. That crash, and many like it, most likely would have been avoided if the airplane had carried a relatively inexpensive warning system.

The single-engine Piper Cherokee Lance with three people aboard took off from Teterboro, N.J., bound for the Jersey shore, six minutes before the accident. The chopper, carrying a pilot and five Italian tourists, lifted off from a helipad on Manhattan’s West Side. They converged in a low-altitude corridor that private pilots frequently use to traverse metropolitan New York’s congested airspace.

On a clear, bright day, both craft were operating under visual flight rules, or VFR. VFR pilots are responsible for seeing and avoiding other traffic. In uncontrolled space, they are not in contact with air traffic controllers at local airports, who in any case are concentrating on aircraft approaching and departing the runways. The pilots should have been announcing their positions and intentions, and listening to reports from fellow pilots, on a common radio frequency. Most likely they were doing just that.

Still, they collided. The helicopter, which reportedly was climbing, had the right of way. The Piper’s pilot should have steered well clear of him, but did not. These things can happen even when a pilot is doing all the right things.

The Piper is a low-wing aircraft, meaning the wing is attached to the fuselage below the cockpit, just as on a commercial airliner. I earned my private pilot certificate recently, and I can tell you from experience that it is difficult to see what is below you when you are in level flight in a Piper. Even a slight climb makes it much harder.

I suspect neither pilot had a clue that the other was nearby until the collision.

It does not have to be that way. Most aircraft these days carry transponders that electronically announce their location and altitude. Transponders are mandatory within 30 nautical miles of major airports, including the location of this week’s crash. Both the plane and the chopper should have been transponder-equipped.

The transponders could have allowed ground-based controllers to spot the potential collision and alert the airmen. But it is not clear whether the pilots were talking to controllers, and controllers may not have had time to warn the Piper pilot to avoid a helicopter rising quickly off the Manhattan shoreline.

We could restrict uncontrolled flights through the Hudson River corridor and other congested areas. That would doubtless avoid some crashes, but it would probably seriously burden an already strained air traffic system. And mistakes still would happen; there simply would be someone on the ground who could be blamed afterward. A better approach is to give all pilots the tools to avoid these collisions without help from controllers.

Commercial airliners have been required to carry traffic-monitoring systems for more than a decade. These sophisticated computers will tell a pilot to climb, dive or turn to avoid an imminent accident. If two planes with these systems approach one another, the devices will coordinate to make sure each pilot is told to fly in the opposite direction.

Many modern light aircraft come with similar, though simpler, devices. My initial “discovery” flight a year ago was in a shiny new Cirrus whose flat-panel display tracked our plane on GPS, reported the elevation of nearby hills, and showed every transponder-equipped aircraft within miles. If another aircraft even threatened to cross our path, the system reported “Traffic!” through our headsets in a voice that commanded immediate attention.

Many older aircraft, including the Pipers that I trained on, have no such system. I learned to navigate by using landmarks and radio beacons. I learned to avoid other aircraft by looking for them and announcing my position regularly. I announce my position so regularly, I must sound like a play-by-play announcer calling the Super Bowl. But it is not enough.

Human beings miss things. Sometimes the sheer geometry of the situation, like the Piper’s low wing, makes it almost impossible not to miss something. In fact, an all-too-common accident scenario has a low-wing Piper descending into a high-wing Cessna. The Cessna pilot cannot see the plane above him, and the Piper pilot cannot see the aircraft below him, until it is too late.

Built-in glass cockpits with sophisticated avionics can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But I could put a portable GPS and transponder-monitoring system into an old Piper for around $4,000 or so.

I do not know what equipment was aboard the Piper involved in the recent accident, nor do I know if the helicopter had a traffic alert system. In the Piper’s case, however, I strongly doubt the pilot had the equipment that would have told him a helicopter was climbing into his path.

As with everything else in life, there are trade-offs. More electronics means more weight, which is a big issue for small single-engine planes. It also means more expense in a pastime that already is so expensive that the number of pilots in this country has been in decline for about 30 years.

But the fact remains that a few thousand dollars of equipment could have saved nine lives this weekend, and many more besides. Though a phase-in period probably would be necessary, the time has come to require that technology do what humans, too often, cannot: See and avoid.

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