UAV aircraft and crowded civil air space: is it safe out there?

By John Keller
Editor in Chief

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) eventually will have to share the same civil air space with private and commercial aircraft. The potential of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is simply too big to consider otherwise. When this happens, as it inevitably will, I wonder how safe it will be to fly manned and unmanned aircraft closely together.

It's only a matter of time before the aerial unmanned vehicle takes its place in civilian air space in roles ranging from surveillance of terrorist and criminal activity, finding and fighting forest fires, search and rescue, and many other applications.

Sophisticated aerial unmanned vehicles are cheaper, smaller, and more efficient than their manned counterparts. One big and undeniable advantage of UAVs is the perception of safety; the uninhabited air vehicle does not put human pilots at risk. I was reminded of that aspect of air safety in August when a private fixed-wing airplane collided with a sightseeing helicopter over the Hudson River in New York City, killing all nine people aboard the two aircraft.

That area over the Hudson between Manhattan and New Jersey is one hair-raisingly crowded strip of air space, and it's a wonder we haven't seen more of those mid-airs before. The accident happened on 8 Aug. in clear, daylight, VFR conditions, when a Eurocopter AS 350 carrying tourists climbed into the air space over the river and hit a Piper Cherokee Six private plane from underneath that was flying southbound.

A Cherokee Six, also called a Piper PA-32, is a six-place propeller-driven private plane with a low-mounted wing, which restricts visibility below the aircraft. Evidently the helicopter climbed right into the underside of the Cherokee Six, knocked off one the Piper's wings, and sent both aircraft plummeting into the river.

I'm still a licensed private pilot, although I haven't been active for a couple of decades. When I was active, though I had some experience with the New York City air space, and believe me, it's a scary place. It involves overlapping controlled air space from three major commercial airports -- Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark -- with all of that commercial jetliner traffic climbing and descending in and out of those airports.

Think in three dimensions, and imagine the controlled air space over each of those airports as an upside-down layered wedding cake. The controlled air space down to the ground is the smallest, and each layer of controlled air space moving upward gets larger.

Now put those three upside-down wedding cakes closely together, just like the Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark airports. The only place those controlled air spaces don't touch -- where pilots can fly visual flight rules without being in radio contact with air traffic control -- is over the river, from the river's surface to an altitude of 1,100 feet, and less than a mile wide from side to side. Fly higher and you're likely to have a conflict with a Boeing 747.

The Hudson VFR Corridor, as it's known, is a popular route for light aircraft not only because it has no requirement to get involved with air traffic control, but also because it's exciting and scenic. You can get a great view of the Statue of Liberty, and you're flying below the tops of New York's tallest skyscrapers. To fly through there, pilots are only asked to announce their positions and direction of travel on a radio frequency of 123.05 MHz. That frequency, by the way, is just as crowded as the air space, so pilots have to speak quickly and struggle to get their messages heard.

While in the Hudson VFR Corridor, it is up to each pilot to see and avoid other aircraft. Airplanes are all over the place, helicopters pop up quickly from pads in Manhattan and New Jersey. Couple that with sunlight glinting off office building windows and the river's surface, and you can see how distracting it can be. I'm amazed that mid-air collisions happen so rarely.

Now think about adding UAVs to the mix.

Just this week, the FAA and GE Aerospace inked an agreement to study how to enable manned and unmanned aircraft to share commercial airspace. I'm not sure if unmanned aircraft operating in civil air space would be safer or more dangerous than the situation is today, but it's going to take some serious work and creative thinking to get manned and unmanned aircraft to share the same air space safely.

Let us all hope that GE Aerospace and the FAA take their time and get this job right.

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Mil & Aero Magazine

February 2014
Volume 25, Issue 2
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