Wednesday, May 11, 2005

QUESTION TIME Okay, so Washington D.C. has a sophisticated system in place to monitor incursions into its restricted airspace. But what about New York? Is midtown Manhattan, for example, a no-fly zone?

A definitive answer is beyond the reach of CONTRAPOSITIVE's crack team of researchers. But this 2003 article from the Gotham Gazette (scroll down to the blue box at right) contains informaton that, if current, isn't likely to reassure the locals:

The way the system usually works is that planes flying above 2,500 feet are under the control of the LaGuardia or Newark air control towers, but planes below that level fly under visual flight rules. Thus pilots flying small planes or helicopters need not ask permission to enter New York's airspace, or identify themselves to FAA regional or local controllers.

In normal times, anyone can fly under visual flight rules below 1,100 feet over the Hudson River or over the East River south of the 59th Street bridge, without even communicating with the FAA. Planes flying above 1,100 feet, or flying at any altitude across midtown and northern Manhattan, must check in with the La Guardia tower, give their tail number, and receive a heading intended to prevent congestion. No security check is involved.

The FAA does not know who is piloting these planes, apart from their tail ID number. Nor does the FAA have any enforcement power. Fighter jets patrolling New York's skies are the major enforcers--although it is not at all clear what behavior would trigger fighter jet intervention.

Anyone with a license can rent a plane at many of the approximately 2,000 general aviation airfields within a short flight of New York. Licenses are issued by civilians on the basis of a pilot's proficiency and training. Easily forged and without photos, pilot licenses are seldom verified at general aviation airports, which in any event have notoriously lax security.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.