A while back, my wife and I took a helicopter ride around the Grand Canyon. I have learned since that this was an environmentally bad thing to do, and also somewhat risky. Our helicopter dipped and zoomed, and then suddenly jumped upward just at about the point we thought it was going to hit a canyon wall. These things have been known to crash. And they scare the wildlife. All in all, not the most socially responsible activity I have ever undertaken.
I cannot tell you how much fun we had.
So I can understand why tourists would want to take a helicopter ride around Manhattan, which in its way is just as much a wonder of the world as the Grand Canyon. And since tourism is critical to the city's economic survival, I can understand why Mayor Bloomberg sounds so unenthusiastic when people talk about more regulations.
But something's got to give.
What New Yorkers have noticed, since the terrible plane-helicopter crash last weekend, is that the Hudson River is well under a mile wide, and that there are frequently 10 or 20 different aircraft flying above it between the George Washington Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.
Also, that the small planes and helicopters that stick to the air space under 1,100 feet are unregulated and unmonitored. And that the way pilots avoid hitting one another is by following a rule called "see and avoid."
Small, privately chartered planes and helicopters are involved in fatal accidents at 50 times the rate of commercial air carriers. That doesn't actually seem surprising, given their fragility, the fact that most of them don't have equipment to warn them if another aircraft is dangerously close and the fact that they're using that "see and avoid" system.
The two kinds of aircraft also don't mix well together. The plane pilots complain that the helicopters can simply pop up in front of them. And while we still have no official explanation of what caused last weekend's crash, the initial reports seem to suggest that the pilot simply didn't see the helicopter because it was in a blind spot below his wing.
However it happened, it was a terrible ending. The plane, minus one wing, and the helicopter, with its rotors destroyed, both plummeted into the river. Somehow the fact that the people in the helicopter were Italian tourists celebrating a wedding anniversary made it even worse.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the accident - as are prosecutors in Italy, who would like to indict someone for manslaughter on behalf of the dead tourists. But we should be asking ourselves how we managed to avoid knowing there was something wrong with this situation all along.
In 2006, when Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor flew into the side of an apartment building on the East Side, authorities closed down the air traffic below 1,100 feet where the small aircraft play "see and avoid." Why did we not think to ask whether something shouldn't have been done over the Hudson, too?
And how can a city that's so jumpy about what's going on in the sky that an Air Force plane snapping pictures for publicity in lower Manhattan created a general frenzy not extend that sense of concern a little further?
It's highly unlikely that the helicopters are going to go away. It would apparently be easy to keep some of the small planes away from the Hudson - Steven Altman, the pilot, was given a choice of routes when he flew out of Teterboro, and only picked the river when the controller was indifferent to which way he went. The planes that want to use Manhattan airspace could also be required to have equipment that warns them if another aircraft is dangerously close. And some experts are now saying that the planes and helicopters should be assigned to different altitudes.
"See and avoid" sounds like a reasonable regulation if you're trying to avoid gopher holes during a walk in the garden. For aircraft in New York City, I think we could use something a little more foolproof.