A day after the fiery plane crash into a Manhattan high-rise building, politicians expressed alarm that, five years after Sept. 11, small aircraft are still allowed to fly right up next to the New York skyline.
"I think everyone is scratching their head, wondering how it is possible that an aircraft can be buzzing around Manhattan," said Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from New York who has been lobbying for rule changes since 2004. "It's virtually the Wild West. There is no regulation at all, other than 'Don't run into anything.'"
The single-engine plane that carried two people to their death was flying over the East River, which separates Manhattan from Brooklyn and Queens and is lined on the Manhattan side by the United Nations and scores of other skyscrapers.
Cory Lidle, a player for the Yankees baseball team, and flight instructor Tyler Stanger were killed in the crash.
They were traveling along one of the city's busiest and most popular routes for sightseeing pilots, traffic helicopters and executives hopping from one business deal to the next, and it is largely unmonitored, as long as the aircraft stay below 1,100 feet (330 meters).
Lawmakers have tried for years to close the corridor for reasons of safety and security.
Governor George Pataki said Thursday that the Federal Aviation Administration "needs to take a much tougher line" about private, or general aviation, flights over the city.
However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a recreational pilot with decades of experience, said he believes the skies are safe under the current rules.
"We have very few accidents for an awful lot of traffic," he said. "Every time you have an automobile accident, you're not going to go and close the streets or prohibit people from driving."
Aviation officials have downplayed the potential threat posed by light aircraft, but FAA spokeswoman Laura J. Brown said in a written statement Thursday that the agency would review its guidelines for general aviation and flight restrictions as a result of the crash.
And an aviation industry representative said Wednesday's crash demonstrates that small private planes have little potential as terrorist weapons.
"Yesterday's accident caused no structural damage to the building struck," said Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Small planes "are simply incapable of causing the kind of catastrophic damage that terrorists usually seek."
All flights over New York were grounded after Sept. 11, but the restrictions were lifted three months later.
Much of the airspace over the two main rivers that encircle Manhattan - the East River and the Hudson River - is unrestricted for small aircraft flying under 1,100 feet (330 meters). Planes and helicopters beneath that ceiling do not have to file a flight plan or check in with air traffic controllers, as long as they do not stray from the sky over the rivers.
New York pilots said the path taken by the ill-fated plane on Wednesday is one of the most exhilarating: The plane went down the Hudson River, looped around the Statue of Liberty at the foot of Manhattan, then went up the East River, with the Brooklyn Bridge below and the United Nations on the left.
General aviation aircraft are allowed to go about as far north as Manhattan's 96th Street. There, they must either execute a U-turn to avoid the restricted airspace around LaGuardia Airport, or get permission from air traffic control to climb higher and continue north, or turn west over Central Park.
Lidle's plane slammed into the 30th and 31st stories of a luxury apartment building overlooking the East River, just a short distance from that turnaround point. Radar data indicated that the plane had begun a left turn, a quarter-mile (half-kilometer) north of the building, just before the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
The 1,100-foot (330-meter) ceiling is not necessarily high enough for an off-course pilot to clear some of Manhattan's skyscrapers: The Empire State Building is 1,250 feet (375 meters); the Chrysler Building, 1,046 feet (314 meters); the Citicorp building, 915 feet ( 275 meters).
Local flight instructor Stanley Ferber said that while the city's airspace is bustling with "a myriad of helicopters and planes," there is much more room than people on the ground realize.
"As a pilot, you always have to be on your toes, but it is not a tight situation," he said. "In all the time of my flying over New York, I've never had anything like a close call."
Still, he added, it isn't a place to let your concentration wander - especially in the narrower corridor over the East River. There, the water narrows in many spots to less than a half-mile (800 meters), with the skyscrapers of Manhattan to the west and LaGuardia's airspace to the east, in Queens.
The calls to restrict general aviation traffic in the area have mounted.
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, has called for tighter rules, including a permanent closing of the Hudson River approach to the city, west of Manhattan, and a requirement that low-flying aircraft submit a flight plan before entering New York airspace.
Weiner said all pilots flying near Manhattan should be required to be under the supervision of air traffic controllers. Most low-altitude flights over the island itself should be banned entirely, he said.
Unnerved residents of the apartment building struck by Lidle's plane also complained about the proximity of aircraft to tall city buildings.
"I feel like I can see the pilot at times, it's that close," said Lillian Snower Beacham, who lives on the 36th floor.
Federal aviation accident records list relatively few general aviation accidents near Manhattan, considering the large numbers of craft flying.
Two helicopters rolled into the East River last year immediately after takeoff, causing injuries, but no deaths. There were fatal helicopter crashes in 1997 and 1990. Passengers escaped unhurt when a Cessna dove into the Hudson in 1988. Four people died when a seaplane and police helicopter collided over the East River in 1983.
Associated Press Writers Sara Kugler, Richard Pyle, Adam Goldman and Amy Westfelt in New York and Leslie Miller in Washington contributed to this report.
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