To some people looking into the clear skies Saturday off lower Manhattan, it was apparent that the small airplane and the sightseeing helicopter taking in the sweeping views of the Hudson River and New York Harbor were dangerously close. One man even radioed the helicopter pilot, using the common frequency available to fliers in the area, to raise the alarm.
Whether the pilot got that alarm or whether either flier knew of the other's presence may never be known. Seconds later, as stunned sunbathers, sightseers on tour boats, joggers and bicyclists watched, the aircraft smacked into each other several hundred feet above the river. Both aircraft plummeted into the river, killing all nine people aboard them and pointing up the potential risks of small aircraft flying virtually uncontrolled through the crowded area.
As divers and boats searched for the bodies of the victims, who included five Italian tourists and at least one child, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the accident did not necessarily indicate a need for tougher restrictions over small aircraft flying up and down the Hudson. Pilots of helicopters and small planes are required to stay below about 1,100 feet to avoid commercial air traffic, but are not required to be in touch with air traffic controllers or even to speak to one another on the common radio frequency.
Bloomberg, a licensed pilot, said those flying the sightseeing and corporate helicopters that frequent the area normally are on the frequency.
Joseph Heyman, who often flies his private plane down the river from Connecticut, also said it was unusual for pilots not to alert others to their presence. "Everyone talks to each other. That's why I'm so surprised that something like this could happen," said Heyman, who was biking along the river south of 14th Street in Manhattan when he heard about the crash. "I'm saddened by what happened, but I'm afraid it'll hurt general aviation."
Politicians, including Bloomberg, said it was far too early to say if the incident could lead to a change in rules, as happened in 2006 after Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor were killed when their small plane slammed into a skyscraper while navigating New York City's East River.
That prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to require pilots of small planes to alert air traffic controllers when they entered the area, ending the freedom that pilots still enjoy over the Hudson.
Bloomberg noted that there are uncontrolled areas across the country. "This could have happened over a cornfield, or over the East River," he said. "It may be one of those things that no amount of restrictions, other than preventing aircraft from coming into the area at all, could have prevented."
But across the river in New Jersey, where chunks of debris slammed onto the shore not far from people picnicking in riverside parks, Gov. Jon Corzine suggested it was time to consider a change.
"All of us in this region . . . need to take a long and serious look at the circumstances surrounding this crash to ensure that significant air traffic over the Hudson doesn't come at the risk of the safety of New Jersey families who live along the riverfront," Corzine said.
In January, US Airways Flight 1549 landed on the Hudson following a bird strike that caused the jetliner to lose thrust in both engines. All 155 people on board were rescued.
On Saturday, the single-engine Piper PA-32R plane, carrying a pilot and two passengers, had left New Jersey's Teterboro Airport and was heading south toward Ocean City, N.J., shortly before noon. The helicopter, carrying a pilot and the five Italian sightseers, had left a helipad at West 30th Street in Manhattan minutes earlier.
According to Bloomberg, the helicopter flew out over the river, as is customary for sightseeing helicopters, to check for other air traffic before turning south to begin its tour.
Bill Olivier and his family, visiting from Texas, were sitting on the upper deck of a cruise boat when they noticed the plane drawing close to the rear of the helicopter, which was flying more slowly.
"My wife looked at me and we looked at each other . . . and said, 'Are they going to hit each other?' " Olivier told Fox News. "It was almost like slow motion as you see the plane and the helicopter coming together."
A pilot working for Liberty Tours, the company that owns the helicopter that crashed, was on the ground refueling when he noticed the impending collision and used the common air frequency to alert the helicopter pilot, said Debbie Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, whose investigators interviewed the witness.
"He . . . told him, 'You have a fixed-wing behind you,' " Hersman said. "There was no response."
Seconds later, the plane's right wing hit the helicopter.
"I thought it was a cannon, like being fired off to mark a celebration," said Paul Murphy, who heard the impact as he walked along the Manhattan side of the river. Murphy looked up to see the two aircraft falling separately into the river. Then he heard a small splash. The aircraft quickly vanished.
"It was surreal," said Murphy. "You don't really believe what you saw. You expect to see something floating on the surface, but then it's just gone."
By late Saturday, three bodies had been retrieved. The helicopter had been found and was marked by buoys. Hersman said investigators hoped to pull it from the water today.