A New York State of
New York City sits within some of the busiest airspace in the nation. It is not a place for pilots made anxious by air traffic control (ATC) or dense air traffic. However, for those willing to explore the area, a breathtaking urban landscape of concrete and steel awaits, accented by the green of Central Park and the blue of the Hudson and East Rivers.
A VFR corridor has existed for many years over the Hudson River that bores directly through the convoluted superposition of Bravo airspaces centered around Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK. It allows VFR traffic to transit the massive, busy region of airspace around New York City without tangling with ATC or having to go around the perimeter. When I flew it in 2008, the corridor followed the lateral boundaries of the Hudson with flight allowed up to 1,100 feet. A common traffic advisory frequency was used to make position reports from a standard set of landmarks.
In 2009, a collision between a fixed wing general aviation aircraft and a helicopter led the FAA to redefine the flight rules for the area. As described on the New York Terminal Area Chart (TAC), there are now two procedures for transiting the area.
|New York Terminal Area Chart showing the Hudson River Exclusion Area|
The Hudson River Exclusion Special Flight Rules Area is analogous to the original Hudson River VFR Corridor. It extends from the surface up to (but not including) 1,300 feet. As before, the lateral boundaries of the Exclusion are defined by the banks of the river itself. The Exclusion is completely uncontrolled and traffic self-announces on 123.05 MHz at the Verrazano Narrows Bridge ("VZ"), Statue of Liberty, the Colgate Clock in Jersey City ("Clock"), the Intrepid, the George Washington Bridge ("GWB") and the Alpine Tower going from south to north. Within the Exclusion, traffic is segregated vertically with local traffic (sightseeing helicopters, etc) permitted from the surface to 1,000 feet and transient traffic immediately beneath the Bravo between 1,000 and 1,300 feet. This stratification was created as a direct response to the 2009 accident.
|Zoom of New York TAC showing the Hudson River Exclusion|
Alternatively, traffic may fly the Skyline Route under positive control through the Bravo airspace above 1,300 feet and generally no higher than 2,000 feet. Southbound traffic needs to contact LaGuardia Tower on 126.05 prior to the Alpine Tower and northbound traffic contacts Newark Tower on 127.85 prior to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge for permission to fly the route.While more regimented than flying the Exclusion, the Skyline Route eliminates the need to make position reports.
This year, Matt from the Williamson Flying Club Activities Committee organized an excursion for the club down the Hudson. Our goal was to caravan through the Skyline Route from north to south, turn around near the Verrazano Narrows, request the East River northbound, then transition back to the Hudson over Central Park. To my mind, the Skyline Route has several advantages. It is flown at a higher altitude (safer), under positive control (with traffic call-outs from ATC), is prone to less traffic, and it gives access to the East River (fixed wing traffic except landing seaplanes are prohibited from the East River Exclusion).
After circumnavigating Manhattan, the plan was to get lunch at Cherry Ridge (N30). We had six aircraft originally planning to go. Matt conducted a briefing for all pilots a week beforehand to ensure that everyone was comfortable and familiar with the rules and the plan. Additionally, most of us took the official FAA training course (ALC-79) about the Hudson Exclusion.
On the morning of our departure, Hurricane Dorian had passed New York City and was expected to be off the coast near Cape Cod, but the deep low pressure center of the hurricane was still anticipated to create gusty winds in the New York City area that were expected to subside by mid morning. A trough running through New York State from the northwest to southeast was expected to bring low clouds along the route from Sodus to NYC, though the area south of the Catskills and the City itself were forecast to be good VFR.
Two aircraft bailed out the day before, one out of concerns over weather and the other due to a scheduling conflict. Ed added his Archer to the mix last minute after returning early from a business trip.
We gathered at the Williamson Sodus Airport on the morning of the trip to review weather and make a go/no-go decision. Despite some low clouds along the route, weather in the greater New York metropolitan area looked good and we decided that the flight was a go. Just before departing, we discovered that the restaurant at Cherry Ridge was closed for the weekend and switched lunch to Sussex Airport (KFWN). Then we launched toward the dwindling hurricane.
|Date||Aircraft||Route of Flight||Time (hrs)||Total (hrs)|
|07 Sep 2019||N21481||SDC (Sodus, NY) - MGJ (Montgomery, NY) - FWN (Sussex, NJ) - SDC||4.9||2027.0|
Four aircraft departed the Williamson Sodus Airport. Matt, Rob, and Nancy were aboard Cessna Six Echo Sierra; Ed and Zach were aboard Archer Four Four Papa; Scott and I were in Warrior 481; and Eric, Mike, and Steve were in Archer Eight Five X-Ray. Simultaneously, Barry launched from Rochester in his Seneca with club members Tim and Dick on board.
Eric launched first in Eight Five X-Ray and called an advisory to the rest that clouds were encroaching on the pattern. Eight Five X-Ray stayed low and intercepted a direct southeast course toward New York City.
Scott and I launched next and climbed southwest toward blue sky. To the west, the sky was relatively open. To the east, low clouds stretched as far as I could see. I noted Eric's ADS-B target tracking the magenta line in ForeFlight somewhere beneath the overcast.
We rounded the edge of the clouds while climbing to 5,500 feet. Via ADS-B, I observed Matt and Ed following suit. I requested VFR flight following from Rochester to Orange County Airport in Montgomery, NY. It was a convenient waypoint near the Hudson River and the airport would serve as an easy restroom stop if needed.
As we flew over the broken cloud deck, Eric called out to the rest of the group on 122.75. He was forced to fly quite low by the clouds and asked what the rest of us were doing. We declared that we were on top and in the clear. ADS-B weather definitively showed that the sky was clear south of the Catskills, so I had no hesitation about continuing VFR above the cloud layer. We all had full fuel and many options. As we flew, Scott monitored Eric's ADS-B target wandering in the vicinity of Seneca Falls, NY in search of an opening to climb on top.
As we continued over central New York State, the clouds thickened and rose -- we eventually climbed to 9,500 feet to remain VFR. Eric, unable to find a path to higher altitude radioed that he was aborting the trip. Given the position he found himself in, that was the best decision that he could have made. Sadly, the early decision to stay low rather than go high made all the difference for Eric even though none of us actually realized it at the time.
I have often said that flying is about far more than physics. It is about decision making. A pilot makes hundreds of decisions on any given flight, some minor, some critical, and some absolutely pivotal, whether the pilot is in a position to realize it in the moment or not.
IFR = I Follow Rivers
|A crisply-defined edge to the cloud deck|
In the vicinity of the Catskills, we went off an intangible cliff where the cloud deck abruptly ended. Lower clouds fractured into a scattered layer with a clear sky beyond. Matt diverted to Sussex for a restroom stop and I made for Orange County while Barry and Ed both kept their aircraft in the air on a heading for New York City.
|Darn propeller ruining an otherwise lovely shot.|
We landed on runway 22 at Orange County (airport #197). The runway must have just changed designation because the charts were not fully updated to reflect the number freshly painted on the end of the pavement.
We parked next to a Cirrus with a unique paint scheme.
|Warrior 481 parked at Orange County.|
Before departing Orange County, I organized the cockpit, reviewed the Skyline procedure, and wrote down the frequencies I would need to fly the route. I had also briefed the Exclusion procedure just in case we were denied the Skyline Route for any reason. We launched VFR and, once clear of Stewart International's Delta airspace, I turned southeast to join the Hudson River.
Once we intercepted the Hudson River, I tuned LaGuardia Tower on 126.05. The frequency was busy, but not frenetically so. We heard LaGuardia talking to Ed as he transitioned back northbound up the Hudson from over Central Park. In the time we spent on the ground in Montgomery, Ed had already completed his circuit around Manhattan. This was good news because it meant that ATC was approving the East River route with the Central Park transition.
My plan was to contact LaGuardia as we crossed over the top of the new Tappan Zee Bridge. Aside from some pilings still visible in the water south of the current span, there was no longer any sign of the previous bridge.
I contacted LaGuardia with a request for the Skyline Route as we crossed the Tappan Zee. We were given a squawk code, assigned to fly at 2,000 feet, and told to call back at the Alpine Tower for clearance into the Bravo. From other accounts, I already knew that ATC likes to play chicken with the Bravo clearance. As we sped down the river toward the invisible wall of Bravo airspace ahead, I was reminded of the scene in Return of the Jedi when the Rebel fleet sped toward the Death Star while debating about whether the invisible defense shield was still in place.
I advised reaching the Alpine Tower a bit before we were actually upon it. ATC acknowledged, but did not provide a clearance right away. As my anxiety rose, we passed abeam the Tower and LaGuardia finally called back, "Cherokee Four Eight One, cleared into the Bravo. Maintain 2,000."
There is nothing quite like cutting it so close, is there?
Big Apple, Big Buildings
Because we were in the controlled Bravo airspace, there was no need to call-out waypoints as required within the Exclusion. ATC provided traffic call-outs. The Hudson was quite busy, though the majority of traffic was beneath us.
|Southbound, about to cross over the George Washington Bridge|
Southbound, the journey passed quickly, both subjectively owing to heavy traffic and in real time because of a tailwind. For the most part, I was too busy for much sightseeing.
Much like my previous flight over the Hudson, the position of the morning sun made photography a challenge.
Abeam Midtown, I spotted the Intrepid among the west side piers.
I took a moment to snap a photo of the World War II aircraft carrier, reflecting on the fact that I stood on its deck exactly two weeks prior.
Somewhere along the way, we were switched to Newark Tower and asked for our intentions. I requested a northern turn at the Verrazano to fly over the East River and transition across Central Park. "Cherokee Four Eight One, I'm not sure that we can accommodate that today because of the direction traffic is landing. I'll let you know."
The vent tower for the Holland Tunnel stands out as an obvious landmark. The tunnel is visibly aligned with Canal Street and, on the other side of Manhattan, the Manhattan Bridge.
Eventually, we reached the southern tip of Manhattan dominated by the new tower at One World Trade Center. It was not lost on me that the 18th anniversary of 9/11 would come to pass in a matter of days.
We flew almost directly over Liberty Island and caught a glimpse of the famous statue's backside. I was too busy when flying north to capture her from the front.
South of Manhattan, we continued along the western edge of New York Harbor.
NYC Ready for Her Close-Up
We flew south of the Verrazano Narrows bridge and obtained permission to turn northbound from Newark. In the turn, our perspective changed significantly as the sun swung around to Warrior 481's tail.
Just south of Governor's Island, we were cleared for the East River and told to descend to 1,500 feet.
The route up the East River was spectacular. Air traffic was significantly lighter, the light was much better, and a headwind slowed our travel to allow more time to gaze awestruck at the metropolis below.
For this view, all of the planning was worth it.
We crossed the easily recognizable Brooklyn Bridge. At some point, we were transitioned back to LaGuardia Tower.
|The Manhattan Bridge|
Midtown with the Empire State Building in sight.
We flew along the East River just slightly lower than the antenna atop the Empire State Building.
Then, Central Park was in sight. Our instructions were to transition across Central Park once north of Roosevelt Island (lower right hand corner of frame).
|Photo by Scott.|
LaGuardia pointed out helicopter traffic also transitioning across Central Park. I picked it up as a minuscule black dot in the sky (above). Our next challenge was merging with traffic traveling northbound up the Hudson. This is where ADS-B traffic was very handy as I was able to see what was coming before I had a visual on the traffic. It was clear that we would fall-in behind the fast-moving Cirrus travelling up the Hudson at our altitude.
As we turned north, LaGuardia asked if we wanted flight following to our destination. I answered in the affirmative, but stumbled on the identifier for Sussex. Because it was a last minute change, I did not have the identifier committed to memory. I was busy enough that I did not want to hunt for it on the chart. I realized that it was displayed as my destination on the GNS-430, but a traffic alert had covered the destination field and would not immediately clear off.
I literally "ummed" on frequency; embarrassing.
"I'll get back to you," said the LaGuardia controller without malice.
I punched the CLR button on the 430 a few more times while cursing vehemently before the traffic advisory window finally disappeared, revealing the destination to be Foxtrot Whiskey November.
"Cessna 123," called LaGuardia, "Do you know where you're going yet?" The pilot of the other aircraft read off an identifier. At least I was not the only one. "And Cherokee Four Eight One, do you remember where you're going?"
"Fox Whiskey November, Cherokee Four Eight One."
We were passed to New York Departure and cleared through the Bravo for the trip to Sussex without even asking. Overall, I have only compliments for the LaGuardia, Newark, and New York Approach controllers who handled us that morning. They were exceptionally helpful and accommodating. This was a great experience for everyone involved.
|Our GPS route around Manhattan as exported from ForeFlight into Google Earth.|
"Cherokee Four Eight One, I haven't seen any jumping at Sussex so far today, but I've only been on shift for ten minutes. Squawk VFR, frequency change approved." New York approach signed off with something less than a comprehensive skydiving advisory, but I appreciated the effort.
Warrior 481 was the third aircraft of the four to land at Sussex (airport #198). Matt was still behind us in Six Echo Sierra. Despite the AWOS declaring wind from the north at nine knots, our landing on runway 03 was clearly downwind. Ed and Zach affirmed that the same happened to them and we watched Matt experience something similar as he brought the Hawk XP in for a landing. As we waited on the ramp, we could feel the wind direction actively changing.
Our goal was to land at Sussex at noon for lunch. Scott and I touched down at 11:58 am, right on time. Because Barry ran through the corridor first in the fastest airplane, he and his passengers were already waiting for us in the Airport Diner.
We waited while Matt and Rob wrangled Six Echo Sierra into a parking spot.
Eventually, all four aircraft from the Williamson Flying Club that made the trip around Manhattan were gathered together on the Sussex ramp.
Sussex was the home airport of famed aerobatic pilot Leo Loudenslager and a monument to him stands on the edge of the ramp. It depicts the Laser 200 aerobatic monoplane that Leo made famous in the 1970s. The original aircraft hangs in the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center.
The Airport Diner claims to make the "Best Burgers in Sussex County". Hyperbole? Maybe. But the general consensus was that the food was good. I would go back.
After lunch, Matt took on fuel for the return flight to Sodus.
Barry's Seneca, Warrior 481, and Ed's Archer II.
I have never seen a bare aluminum Cherokee before. Photo included for sake of novelty.
Barry, Dick, and Tim from the Williamson Flying Club. Barry also had a friend along (second from left) whom I did not formally meet.
Zach and Ed with Ed's Archer II.
Scott and me with Warrior 481.
Matt, Rob, and Nancy with the Hawk XP.
I also took on fuel for the flight back home. Our return flight was a bumpy, 1.8 hour slog against a headwind and beneath a 3,500 foot ceiling. I debated about going IFR over the layer, but realized this would just stretch the trip out even longer against a stronger headwind. Our return flight was anticlimactic after that morning's spectacular experience. Despite that, I think everyone was energized by the trip, by flying in the New York Bravo, by successfully communicating with the New York area controllers, and by seeing the amazing sight of the New York City skyline from the cockpits of our aircraft. By virtue of the East River / Central Park route, this trip completely surpassed the solo flight I made through the corridor back in 2008.
Thanks to Matt for suggesting and organizing this outing and thanks to the excellent New York controllers for making it all possible.