Big Sky Theory
It is tempting to look upward with awe at the vast traversable volume that the sky represents. One might even think of the sky as being a lonely place, a perch of solitude experienced from the protective bubble of an aircraft cabin; Ernie Gann's Island in the Sky. Aloft, a mote plying the breath of the heavens, the aviator is seemingly banished from the Earth and the crushing proximity of humanity.
However, geography matters. For a pilot over New York City when air traffic control (ATC) is short staffed, these impressions are demonstrably false and the airspace feels far from empty.
And Then There Were Eight...
|Date||Aircraft||Route of Flight||Time (hrs)||Total (hrs)|
|22 May 2021||N21481||SDC (Sodus, NY) - MGJ (Montgomery, NY) - 44N (Millbrook) - SDC||5.1||2254.2|
In the planning, five aircraft carrying fifteen Williamson Flying Club members were meant to navigate the tightly controlled airspace above Manhattan, flying over the terrestrial waterways defining an imaginary corridor through an equally imaginary airspace complex. When Matt had to withdraw for personal reasons, we lost one aircraft and four members. When another Club aircraft was grounded by an alternator failure, Scott and his two passengers were forced to bow out as well.
The three remaining pilots watched the weather forecasts with bated breath. Following a "go" decision, three aircraft carrying eight people launched for New York City on a Saturday morning at 8:45 am. I was the only pilot of the group who had personally flown through the New York airspace previously.
|Photo by Paula.|
Newly minted commercial pilot Erik helmed red-nosed Nine Four Romeo with Paula in the right seat. It was the first time flying to New York City for both.
As our trio of Cherokees ran-up for departure at Sodus, Mike's single seat yellow Hummel Bird slipped out ahead of us for a breakfast run to Whitford's, taxiing around the Pipers like a gnat amongst giants.
|Photo by Jamie.|
Jamie, Alicia, and Tom took to the sky in Two Six Romeo. Tom had been through the New York Bravo as a passenger with Matt several years before, but this was his first time personally flying along the Manhattan skyline.
|Nine Four Romeo running up at the Williamson-Sodus Airport.|
Aboard Warrior Four Eight One was Kristy, making not only her first aerial trip to The City (that did not involve a landing and a Broadway show), but also making her first flight since our challenging return from Maine last summer. The Bear was along for the ride to Manhattan last fall and eager to experience the flight again.
|Interesting ground feature north of the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.|
Erik suggested monitoring the air-to-air frequency to stay in contact with each other, but the banal chatter on the aviation party line led me to monitor Guard instead. Fortunately, Guard was generally free of felines, wookies, and other miscellaneous idiots that day.
The plan was:
- Depart the Williamson Sodus Airport at 8:45 am.
- Arrive at the Orange County Airport (KMGJ, Montgomery, NY) approximately 10:10 am for a pitstop.
- Depart Orange County by 10:40 am for the Skyline Route
- Fly the Skyline Route over the Hudson River southbound. South of the Statue of Liberty, turn northeast over the East River. Transition back to the Hudson River northbound across Central Park.
- Arrive at Sky Acres (44N, Millbrook, NY) for lunch at Hangars Cafe by noon.
The Skyline Route is described on the back of the New York Terminal Area Chart (TAC). It is a procedure flown in controlled Bravo airspace between 1300 and 2000 feet within the lateral boundaries of the Hudson River, placing it directly above the uncontrolled traffic in the so-called Hudson River Exclusion. In general, the advantages of the Skyline Route over the uncontrolled Exclusion include separation services from ATC (safer), a slightly higher altitude (also safer), no requirement to keep track of waypoints and broadcast position reports in the blind (convenient), and the ability to overfly the East River and Central Park in a fixed-wing aircraft. After the Cory Lidle incident of 2006, fixed wing aircraft are no longer welcome in the virtual box canyon of the East River Exclusion except for landing or departing seaplanes. The Skyline Route is managed by dedicated controllers at LaGuardia Tower (126.05) on the north end and Newark Tower (127.85) on the south end.
|Succumbing to hilarity at 5,500 feet.|
En route to Orange County, Kristy and The Bear entertained themselves by playing Twenty Questions. When The Bear required far more than twenty questions to arrive at Puff the Magic Dragon, she succumbed to embarrassed chagrin and buried her head in her hands with laughter. These are the kinds of precious moments that are easier for pilots to enjoy when HAL is flying the airplane.
(Thanks, HAL! And stop calling me Dave.)
My arrival at Orange County was far from elegant for multiple reasons, but I neither left airplane parts on the runway nor applied a fresh coat of rubber to its surface.
|Tom, Jamie, and Alicia arrive at Orange County.|
To my surprise, there was a Lamborghini parked in the tie-down area. Aside from that, it was a perfunctory pitstop with the added bonus of there being a functional bathroom door in the terminal building this time around.
In addition to stretching our legs at Orange County, Kristy took a moment to swing The Bear's internal compass on the conveniently available compass rose.
|Two Six Romeo and Nine Four Romeo preparing to depart Orange County.|
|Warrior 481 and Two Six Romeo waiting to depart. Photo by Paula.|
A Game of Chicken
By consensus, mine was the first aircraft to enter the Skyline Route so that the other pilots could listen in and adjust their strategies accordingly based on how everything went for me.
|Rockland Lake on the banks of the Hudson just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Photo by Kristy.|
Barreling southbound over the Hudson River at 100+ knots, the primary obstacle for aircraft is an imaginary one: Bravo airspace encircling the entire New York terminal area. Aircraft must receive explicit clearance before entering Bravo airspace or else face the wrath of the FAA. Curiously, LaGuardia Tower likes to play chicken with this Bravo clearance for the Skyline Route, only conferring it at the literal last minute. Failure to receive a clearance into the Bravo presents a pilot with two choices: a very abrupt U-turn or a dive below 1,300 feet into the uncontrolled Hudson River Exclusion, with both actions intended to avoid a "bust" of the airspace.
The Tappan Zee Bridge (official FAA charts do not recognize the new name of this visual reporting point) is roughly six miles -- less than three minutes -- north of the Alpine Tower, the physical landmark that coincides with the Class Bravo airspace boundary and the beginning of the imaginary Skyline Route. It is a simple, obvious place to begin the conversation with LaGuardia Tower.
"LaGuardia Tower, Cherokee Two One Four Eight One over the Tappan Zee, one thousand five hundred, requesting Skyline southbound."
"Cherokee Four Eight One, call back closer to the Alpine Tower."
|The Alpine Tower. Photo by Kristy.|
I waited until approximately two nautical miles north of the Alpine Tower to call LaGuardia again; hurtling toward an invisible boundary in the sky less than one minute away. This time, success.
"Cherokee Four Eight One, squawk zero two zero two, cleared into the Bravo, maintain one thousand five hundred for now." By the time I repeated it all back, I was already inside the airspace.
This has been a consistent pattern from LaGuardia Tower every time we fly this route. I do not understand ATC's motivation for delaying the clearance. It seems like earlier notification would benefit ATC while being less stressful for every pilot involved.
Once cleared into the Bravo, I relaxed for a moment. With the first step complete, the next action would come when LaGuardia handed us to Newark Tower somewhere abeam Midtown. At that time, I planned to request flying the East River with a transition back to the Hudson across Central Park. With Manhattan in the near distance, we crossed the George Washington Bridge (or "GWB"), thus seeming to formally enter New York City.
When ATC Does not Answer
Just a few minutes in trail and also at 1,500 feet, Tom was next. Learning from the controller's responses to me, he delayed his initial call-up until he was closer to the Alpine Tower. His call went unanswered.
Additionally, I noticed that our LaGuardia controller was not dedicated to managing Skyline traffic as we have experienced in the past. I heard him clearing aircraft to land and depart LaGuardia and realized that he was working multiple positions and that his attention was severely divided.
|Passing abeam Central Park, southbound.|
Tom called a second time and, again, his call went unheeded. On my traffic display, the cyan triangle in ForeFlight representing Tom's ship showed a descent. Tom was diving into the uncontrolled Hudson River Exclusion (surface to 1,300') to avoid busting the Bravo.
While Tom was descending, LaGuardia Tower directed us to climb to 2,000 feet. This was obviously the intention all along given the earlier comment, "Maintain one thousand five hundred for now."
|Approaching Midtown Manhattan.|
In the last call I heard from Tom on that frequency, he reported being in the Exclusion two miles south of the Alpine Tower and looking for a climb into the Skyline Route. LaGuardia did not acknowledge him at all.
Flying the third ship in our flight, Erik successfully managed to seize a squawk code and a Bravo clearance without much hassle. With that, two of our three airplanes were in the Bravo with Tom flying low over the Hudson among the uncontrolled traffic. This also meant that Tom needed to follow the rules of the Exclusion, which caused a scramble for information in the cockpit.
|Approaching Midtown Manhattan.|
Drawing even with Midtown, I began to wonder why LaGuardia had not passed us to Newark yet. The frequency was quite busy and I chose to bide my time.
With an aircraft carrier directly below -- the Intrepid Air, Sea, and Space Museum -- I wryly noted that there was insufficient deck space available for emergency landings. Hmmm...what about the roof of that cruise ship terminal on the adjacent pier?
|Hudson Yards and the Javits Center (Green Roof).|
|Lower Manhattan dominated by One World Trade Center.|
I realized that LaGuardia had forgotten about us. We should have been switched to Newark Tower long before reaching the southern tip of Manhattan. In Bravo airspace, the intent is for 100% positive control of aircraft. Was that still true for us? Was anyone paying attention? As a case in point, Erik had a close call with a helicopter that he avoided, but without any traffic call-out from ATC.
I was distracted momentarily by the iconic statue below.
|Wouldn't this have been a great photo if the statue had only been rotated about 180°?|
As we passed the Statue of Liberty, I called LaGuardia and requested the East River northbound with a Central Park transition back to the Hudson.
I caught the controller off guard and received a very hurried, "Cherokee Four Eight One, contact Newark Tower on 127.85." Yep. LaGuardia forgot about us. Erik, convinced that they also forgot about him, received a handoff shortly thereafter.
By the time I established two way communication with Newark Tower and received approval for my request, we were already passing over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. I performed a U-turn over the Verrazano.
|Checking out the Statue of Liberty. Photo by Kristy.|
|Finally! A shot of the Statue of Liberty from the front!|
At the southern tip of Manhattan, we bore right and followed the East River. Erik and Paula managed to turn around sooner than we did and were not far behind. At this point, I was so busy that I lost track of Tom's airplane on my traffic display. Newark Tower pushed us back to LaGuardia Tower as we passed east of the substantial skyscrapers of lower Manhattan and we were asked to descend to 1,500 feet. This seems to be the typical altitude for traffic flying the East River in the Bravo.
The Bear was keen to find Grand Central Terminal. I told her to look northeast of the Empire State Building, but she never spotted it. Despite its massive volume, Grand Central competes poorly with the surrounding skyscrapers in verticality.
|The United Nations is right on the East River and the Chrysler Building is just west of it.|
As we neared Central Park, LaGuardia asked about our intentions while using the unfamiliar jargon, "checking out". Unclear about the question, I simply restated what I wanted to do and included Sky Acres as our final destination. This tactic evidently worked because LaGuardia eventually passed us to New York Approach who provided flight following from the northern end of the Skyline Route all the way to lunch.
Crossing Central Park to rejoin the Skyline Route, we flew past The Metropolitan Museum of Art, another visible city destination that we have visited as a family.
|Wing view of Central Park.|
|Columbia University. Photo by Kristy.|
|The GWB, northbound.|
As we left NYC behind, my bandwidth increased enough for me to notice that Tom was a few miles ahead en route to Sky Acres. LaGuardia called opposite direction traffic to the aircraft ahead of us.
"In sight. Looks like a flight of two," reported the other aircraft.
"Really?! Helicopters or fixed wing?" queried LaGuardia.
The aircraft in front of me did not respond, but I had the pair of airplanes in sight. "Fixed wing," I answered. They were at a slightly lower altitude than my 1,500 feet and were probably in the Exclusion where they did not need to contact ATC.
Once north of the Tappan Zee and talking with New York Approach, the frenetic pace of ATC calls lessened significantly.
|A map of New York City showing Warrior 481's ground track through the airspace.|
Lunch on the Terrace
Our three aircraft eventually landed at Sky Acres, arriving just a few minutes late for our lunch reservation at Hangars Café. Compared to previous visits, the restaurant was strikingly unpopulated. We had reserved a pair of outdoor picnic tables under a tent.
|Erik and Paula arrive in Nine Four Romeo.|
Airports are usually incredibly flat places, but Sky Acres resides on a series of terraces climbing a hillside. With a full airplane, a surprising amount of power is required to climb some of the taxiways.
|Tom buttoning up Two Six Romeo before lunch.|
|The Bear and Kristy at lunch.|
|The whole gang: Alicia, Tom, me, The Bear, Kristy, Erik, Paula, and Jamie. Photo by Jamie.|
"You got hosed," I remarked to Tom while we took our seats. Erik, Tom, and I compared notes and debriefed what happened over Manhattan that morning. After ducking into the Hudson River Exclusion, Tom, Alicia, and Jamie proceeded south to the Statue of Liberty, then turned around and exited the Exclusion to the north. Overall, Tom did well by the unexpected hand he was dealt, but scrambling for information on flying the Exclusion surely made the experience less fun for him than he would have preferred.
Everyone's food looked delicious. I got the Hangar Burger and a pile of surprisingly delicious fries.
Kristy went for something a little healthier: the curry chicken salad.
But at least I could count on The Bear to follow in my footsteps with a cheeseburger.
|A Cessna landing at Sky Acres.|
|A fancy cabin-class Piper departing Sky Acres.|
All three Sodus-based aircraft refueled at Sky Acres before returning home. Sky Acres is the only airport I have ever visited that features a silo; the field displays its roots as a dairy farm with pride.
According to Alicia, "This is what [we] look like when [we've] been waiting for an inconsiderate non-WFC airplane to move out of the way at the fuel pump."
|Tom and Alicia with their new airplane at Sky Acres. Photo by Jamie.|
As we waited for our turn at the pump, The Bear worked on her poise.
Once refueled, all three aircraft launched within a few minutes of each other. Though the journey was gloomy at times, the only real weather we encountered was close to home.
We passed a small cell just south of the Williamson Sodus Airport while inbound. I did not even have to adjust our trajectory to avoid it.
Back at Sodus, I encountered Dave, who asked about the flight to New York. I started the story with, "Usually, there's a dedicated controller at LaGuardia Tower..."
At the word "dedicated", Dave began nodding emphatically. The former air traffic controller noted that New York area facilities were understaffed and that controllers were working multiple positions. I had already observed that our controller was multitasking and directly attributed his lack of responsiveness to divided attention.
While presumed short-staffing at LaGuardia might have resulted in the skyline flight being more chaotic than usual, I always enter into these flights with a Plan B in mind. I have taken the FAA's "New York City Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA)" training course (ALC-79) that focuses on the Hudson River Exclusion. I also carry the FAA kneeboard document that summarizes the frequencies and Hudson River Exclusion reporting points in an easy to digest format. Though it is my preference to fly in the Bravo, I am always prepared to fly the Exclusion.
Pilots and controllers work together in a high value partnership. It is not my intent to malign the LaGuardia controller managing the Skyline Route that morning. He was clearly doing the best he could with the competing priorities he was given.
For me, the key lesson from this experience is that all pilots intending to fly this route need to be prepared to fly the Exclusion as a Plan B. It goes back to the fundamental rule of flight: always have an out.