Flying around Manhattan

Flying around Manhattan is one of the prettiest and spectacular things you can do with a small airplane in the north east of the US.  We’re based in Morristown, NJ, a mere stone’s throw from the city so I end up doing it quite often.  Below is a report of a recent trip I made (my seventy-first).  I’m hoping it’ll provide some insight to pilots who’d like to do it for the first time.

I like to do these Hudson trips at night, for a couple of reasons.  My passengers are often first-time fliers in small planes, so the lack of turbulence at night makes for a more comfortable flight for them.  Second, the night view of Manhattan is absolutely spectacular, much more so than during the day.  Third, and this is my most important reason, there is very little traffic over the Hudson at night and, what traffic there is, is very visible.  The Hudson is crowded with planes and helicopters during the day, but there are few at night.

We flew on a Friday evening, in August; the Yankees were playing the A’s at home and the stadium TFR wouldn’t allow us nearer than three miles from Yankee Stadium.  A three mile circle just covers the Hudson, so the area a mile or two north and south of the George Washington Bridge becomes a no-fly zone (check before you go and, need I tell you always to check the NOTAMs?).  There is a three-mile circle around Shea Stadium (New York Mets) also, but it is wholly included in the Class B section that goes to the surface around La Guardia.

My normal route of flight would be to return to Morristown by heading north on the Hudson to the Tappan-Zee bridge and then turn hard left, following the 244° radial from Carmel VOR direct to Caldwell continuing direct to Morristown (see the dark blue track on the map).  From the G-W bridge on that allows me to give the passengers an opportunity to hold the controls.  We’d slowly climb from 1000 feet over the G-W Bridge to 1800 feet – an altitude that allows approaches into Teterboro to come in over our heads.  But, as I mentioned, that option was out.  We flew the track marked in red on the map below (click on it for a larger version).

We took off from MMU runway 5 at a few minutes after 10 pm, made a right turn-out to the south and skirted the Class Bravo 1500 foot boundary on the outside.  We looked down at Bell Labs, Murray Hill, and my house in North Plainfield (couldn’t find the latter in the clutter, of course) and then proceeded to the Raritan River, a good landmark at night.  There we gently turned left, crossing the Garden State Parkway on the south shore of the Raritan.  This avoids the appendix on the 1500-foot Class Bravo for Newark’s Runways 4 (see map, southernmost point of both tracks).

Then it was north-east along the Staten Island coast, while descending below 1500 feet and then down to 1000 feet to cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.  This is a good time to make sure you have your taxi or landing light on.

I always start self-announcing on 123.05 just before the bridge.  I usually say something like

 “Hudson Traffic, Skylane, one mile from the Verrazano Bridge, Northbound, One Thousand.”

We then crossed over to “The Lady” and circled it clockwise (passengers are on the right, mostly).  Make sure you announce doing this – every helicopter in the area does it too.  The helicopters usually do it at 500 feet or so.  I always stay at 800 feet or higher, for a little extra assurance.  When another aircraft self-announces, by the way, and it’s close, it is a polite and useful thing to announce your own position and to tell them you have them in sight.

After the Lady, we swung around Governor’s Island into the East River.  The East River has its own self-announce frequency of 123.075.  Do I have to tell you to get an up-to-date VFR Terminal Map for New York?

At the north end of Roosevelt Island, the East River dead-ends onto LGA’s air space.  I always turn around well south of the Island, where the river is nice and wide.  I warn the passengers of the G-forces and usually make a 60°-banked turn (it’s my sadistic streak – 45° is plenty to make the turn – but do brief your passengers on the turn or they’ll freak out).  Watch the wind – it’s usually from the west, so a left turn is into the wind.  Rarely, winds are from the east, however, and then a right turn makes more sense to keep the radius small.  Remember, the turn takes 20 to 30 seconds and a 10 knot wind will displace you by 300 to 450 feet during that turn; that’s significant.  Also, slow down before turning.  The radius of the turn dramatically increases with speed.  Make sure you announce well and look behind you before turning.  Do I need to tell you to be proficient in steep turns before venturing into the East River?  This is not a place to practice them.

If you want to learn a bit more about making optimal steep turns, look here.

We then crossed the three BMW bridges again in reverse order (Williamsburg, Manhattan, Brooklyn), rounded Battery Park and flew north on the Hudson.  I usually announce the Holland Tunnel, the Intrepid (aircraft carrier), the Reservoir in Central Park and the G-W Bridge.  This time we only went as far north as the middle of Central Park.  Turning around over the Hudson is easier than over the East River: it’s wider.

When we got close to the Lady again, I called Newark Tower on 127.85 and asked to cut through the Class Bravo to MMU:

“Newark Tower, Skylane Four Seven Five Seven Tango.”

“Airplane calling, go ahead”.

“Skylane Four Seven Five Seven Tango is near The Lady, one thousand feet, landing Morristown, request fly over Newark Airport to Morristown.”

“Skylane Four Seven Five Seven Tango, Newark Tower, you are cleared into the Class Bravo airspace, climb and maintain one thousand five hundred feet, fly directly over the Runway 04 numbers, then direct Morristown, squawk 4321.”

“Cleared direct numbers Runway Four, direct Morristown, one thousand five hundred, Skylane Four Seven Five Seven Tango.”

“Skylane Five Seven Tango, Newark Tower, radar contact, one thousand three hundred … make that one thousand four hundred, Newark altimeter two niner niner eight.”

“Two niner niner eight, Five Seven Tango.”

Before calling, make sure you can find either the Rwy 4 or the Rwy 22 numbers because they’ll make you fly over them every time.  There’s a lot of ground clutter and it’s hard to spot Newark airport from the Statue.  A GPS helps a lot, of course.  Otherwise, look for I-78 which runs west to east towards the Statue, directly north of the airport (see map again).  Newark controllers are often pretty busy, so don’t expect to get that clearance over EWR every time; just be prepared to fly the long way back.

When we got Morristown in sight, we were still at 1500 feet in Class Bravo airspace:

“Newark Tower, Skylane four seven five seven tango has Morristown airport in sight.”

“Skylane five seven tango, frequency change approved, keep the squawk”

“Five seven tango, roger, thank you and good night.”

By this time (a few minutes after 11), Morristown Tower had closed.  We self announced (scanned the final approaches of Runways 5 and 23 carefully for corporate jets with tired pilots arriving late) and landed Rwy 5 (I don’t like straight in to Rwy 31 when the tower is closed – you can’t see what’s happening on the other runway).


On rare occasions, you get really lucky.  Returning one day from a day trip to Block Island, I had flight following along the coast of Connecticut and I was cleared into the Class Bravo (without asking).  I told the controller I wanted to fly to the Hudson and fly the VFR corridor south and the controller then cleared me over the Throg’s Neck Bridge, the tower cab of La Guardia and Central Park at 2000 feet, followed by a left turn onto the Hudson River.  One of my passengers took these photos.  It gave us a uniquely new perspective on the city from a slightly higher altitude than normal – and without sight-seeing helicopters to worry about.  Each of the pictures can be clicked for a large version.



September 2006, Sape Mullender

Post Scriptum

After the Cory Lidle crash into a Manhattan building, the FAA issued a NOTAM for the East River:


(Have you ever wondered by the FAA speaks to us mostly in CAPITALS? – But I digress.)  I felt that was the end of my East-River excursions.  On a recent flight around the city, however, I decided to consult the authorities directly: I called La Guardia Tower (by phone, while on the ground) and asked what their policy was regarding flying the East River.  The controller was very friendly and told me that, if at all possible, they will grant access to fixed-wing planes, usually in the Class Bravo just above the East-River exclusion zone.  That sounded like great news, so I climbed into one of our planes and took off for a new excursion around Manhattan (with a Columbia University professor as my passenger).

 I took the usual route to the Verrazano Bridge and, half way between it and Governor’s Island, called La Guardia Tower on 126.05:

“La Guardia Tower, Skyhawk 738SQ, East-River request”.

“Aircraft calling, go ahead”.

“La Guardia, Skyhawk 738SQ is 2 miles south of Governor’s Island, one thousand; request flying into the East River, with a one-eighty south of Roosevelt Island”.

The controller cleared me into the Class Bravo, told me to climb to 1500 feet and gave me a squawk code.  He approved my plan and I acknowledged.

He then asked me if, instead, I wanted to fly all the way to the northern tip of Roosevelt Island and cross Central Park to the Hudson.  That sounded pretty good, so that’s what we did.  It’s a gorgeous way to see the city.

After crossing the park, we stayed with La Guardia Tower until we had crossed the George Washington Bridge (the G.W., as it’s called by pilots) where he told us to continue north and squawk VFR.

Lately, I’ve called LGA tower soon after crossing the Verazzano bridge northbound.  I request a clockwise 360 around the southern half of Manhattan: Hudson, Central Park, East River, Battery Park, Hudson north to the Tappan Zee Bridge.  I have always received permission.  You get a squawk code and you’re asked to climb to 1500 feet.

 June 2007/April 2008, Sape Mullender

Post Post Scriptum

Recently, a Piper Saratoga and a Eurocopter collided and crashed into the Hudson, killing 9. This was the first mid-air collision in the Hudson exclusion zone. Although we should always seek ways to improve flight safety in the exclusion zone, just closing it to general-aviation traffic, as 15 members of congress seem to want, is an overreaction (I put a copy of the letter here).

In a letter to the FAA administrator, they say

The Hudson River flight corridor presents unique challenges, but the danger of unregulated on-demand aircraft is also a widespread problem in the New York region and the country. According to the DOT IG, there were 33 accidents and 109 fatalities involving on-demand aircraft in 2007 and 2008. And these types of collisions have been happening for decades.”

nicely suggesting that the bottom of the Hudson is littered with aircraft wrecks. In fact, the DOT added two footnotes in their report to these two sentences:

In 2007 and 2008, commercial air carriers had zero passenger deaths although they flew significantly more hours than on-demand operators.⁵ In contrast, during that same period, there were 33 fatal on-demand accidents, resulting in 109 deaths.⁶

Commercial air carriers flew five times more flight hours in 2007 than on-demand operators.
This is the total for all on-demand operators, including air ambulance and cargo.

It would be great if flight-following were made available for Hudson tours at all altitudes (it already is, on a voluntary basis and requires flying above 1000 feet), but I fear that, in a typical overreaction, the Hudson might be closed to general-aviation traffic and the most beautiful flight one can make in the northeast will no longer be possible.

August, 2009, Sape Mullender