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Chopper crash renews 9/11 worry about rogue aircraft in NYC

Bernard Condon and Tom Krisher
Associated Press
Law enforcement personnel work on the roof of the AXA Equitable building, center, Tuesday, June 11, 2019 in New York.

New York – It was an accident, not terrorism, but this week’s helicopter crash on the roof of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper has raised serious security concerns because of the ease with which the chopper ventured into one of the nation’s most tightly restricted no-fly zones.

Some of the questions being posed are the same ones that bedeviled authorities after 9/11 nearly two decades ago: Are they able to react quickly enough to a rogue aircraft? What can they realistically do? Is scrambling fighter jets and shooting down the intruder really feasible over densely populated city streets?

Experts say the answers are not so reassuring.

“If someone had bad intent and they took off from the heliport and made a beeline to Trump Tower, none of the good guys are going to get in the air fast enough to stop him,” said Steven Bucci, a retired Army Special Forces officer who help design the post-9/11 system to guard U.S. airspace.

Law enforcement personnel work on the roof of the AXA Equitable building, Tuesday, June 11, 2019 in New York. A helicopter crashed Monday on the roof of the rain-shrouded Manhattan skyscraper.

Ever since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, a one-mile radius around Trump Tower has been designated National Defense Airspace, one of the highest-level restrictions, requiring express permission from the Federal Aviation Administration for any flights below 3,000 feet and constant radio communication with air-traffic control.

Pilots who don’t adhere to the restriction, according to the FAA, may be “intercepted, detained and interviewed by law enforcement” and “the United States government may use deadly force … if it is determined that the aircraft poses an imminent security threat.”

Investigators say the pilot who died in the crash Monday afternoon just a few blocks from Trump Tower did not seek such permission and didn’t contact air-traffic control because he wasn’t required to do so, given his intended route, which was supposed to take him around Manhattan to the helicopter’s home base in New Jersey.

New York police officers monitor the streets near 51st Street and 7th Avenue, Monday, June 10, 2019, in New York.

After taking off from a heliport on Manhattan’s East Side, the chopper instead strayed over midtown in heavy rain and thick fog and slammed into the roof of the 750-foot AXA Equitable building during a flight that lasted 11 minutes.

An official who was briefed on the situation and spoke on condition of anonymity because the federal investigation is still going on said that 58-year-old commercial pilot Tim McCormack radioed just before the crash that he was lost and trying to get back to the heliport.

Whether anyone noticed the plane’s intrusion into the no-fly zone before the crash is unclear. The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board officials said that question is under investigation. The New York Police Department has a squadron of helicopters that patrol the city’s airspace, but none were in the air at the time of the crash.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is among those calling for tighter regulation of helicopter flights over the city.

This photo released by the New York City Fire Department shows damage caused by a helicopter crash, south of Central Park in New York on Monday, June 10, 2019. The crash that killed the pilot and occurred near Times Square and Trump Tower shook the 750-foot (229-meter) AXA Equitable building sparked a fire and forced office workers to flee on elevators and down stairs, witnesses and officials said. (FDNY via AP)

“I think the FAA needs to look at this very carefully,” he said on CNN. “Do they need to toughen up their rules or put more security or monitoring of the situation to make sure something like this couldn’t happen again?”

The airspace over certain areas – key government buildings and defense installations, for example – has long been off-limits to planes and helicopters. The use of temporary flight restrictions, or TFRs, grew rapidly after the Sept. 11 attacks and came to include bans over major sporting events and areas around presidential visits.

Federal and civilian air officials say it is not unusual for pilots to venture into such areas without permission, and normally it is just a mistake by a pilot who has strayed off course. Air traffic controllers try to reach the pilot by radio and tell the person how to safely leave the area and land at an airport, and pilots usually cooperate.