Helicopter landing at Wall Street heliport by President Barack Obama

A frequent sight on the New York skyline over the Hudson and East Rivers, helicopters seem as native to the city as seagulls and pigeons. These aircrafts share the airspace with commercial liners and smaller private planes. But with so many usages–personal, commercial, medical, corporate–helicopter travel is far from the strictly-monitored system we’d expect over one of the world’s transportation hubs (as evidenced by a series of crashes and emergency landings in the past decade).

A deadly crash over the Hudson between a sightseeing helicopter and a plane in 2009 prompted the Federal Aviation Administration set new flight regulations in the flight corridors of Manhattan’s rivers. The area from the southern end of Governors Island to the northern tip of Roosevelt Island makes up the East River Visual Flight Rules (VFR) corridor. The Hudson River VFR corridor stretches the length of Manhattan. In these zones, any licensed pilots can fly a registered aircraft up to 1,500 feet. Pilots are not required to be in contact with air traffic control, and simply avoid other aircrafts that they see. 

Prior to the crash, helicopters and small planes could fly anywhere below 1,100 or 1,500 feet, depending on their location within the VFR corridors. After the crash, the FAA effectively divided the Hudson River corridor into zones for local aircraft and others flying through the area. Passing commercial flights that respond to air traffic controllers fly above 1,300 feet. Small passing aircrafts that aren’t under air traffic control fly from 1,000 to 1,300 feet. Sightseeing planes or helicopters must fly below 1,000 feet. The two lower corridors have a speed limit of 161 mph and mandatory checkpoints via radio contact. Flights heading north must keep to the Manhattan side of the Hudson, while southbound flights stay to the New Jersey side. At certain checkpoints along the corridor, pilots must announce their aircraft type, position, direction and altitude.

So where do these helicopters land and take off? According to the New York State Department Of Transportation, Manhattan has three heliports (helicopter airports) for public use: West 30th Street on the Hudson River, East 34th Street on the East River and downtown at Wall Street and FDR Drive, with another located in Southampton on Long Island. The latter two are often used to ferry wealthy passengers to JFK and their beach homes. There are half a dozen other heliports with restricted use, including the NYPD, hospitals and Goldman Sachs private heliports. Each heliport contains one or more helipads for landing. But whereas airports strictly monitor landings, heliports are less regulated. Pilots simply announce their landing position and intention to other helicopters via radio.

There are some restrictions on heliport hours, though, including a ban on weekend flights due to noise control. Mayor Bloomberg came under fire for violating these rules in 2012, and promised not to make more weekend helicopter trips. Those rules may be an obstacle for city dwellers headed to the Hamptons on weekends, but compared to commercial jets, it seems helicopters have it pretty easy.

Get in touch with the author @catku.