Here's How Helicopters Operate in D.C.

June 12, 2019

File Photo - patrick8484 / Getty Images

By Scott Gelman

The pilot who died in Monday’s helicopter crash in New York City wasn’t certified to fly in poor weather, the Federal Aviation Administration said, and instead was only licensed to operate the aircraft in clear weather conditions.

The requirements to operate a helicopter in New York are comparable to those in D.C., which one local pilot said features one of the most protected air spaces in the country. While accidents can still occur over the District, any pilot operating an aircraft within 60 nautical miles of downtown is required to take special training.

And if an aircraft wants to get within 30 miles of D.C., an area called the flight restricted zone, the pilot must establish consistent radio communication with air traffic control, said Seth Clute, director of operations at Monumental Helicopters.

“New York has a similar training requirement [as D.C.],” Clute said. “D.C. air space is a lot of controlled air space.”

The FAA said corporate or private helicopters aren’t allowed to fly above the District. Law enforcement, military, government, medical, civilian, news and general aviation helicopters all fly in what is called the national capital region.

The majority of helicopters flying around the city belong to law enforcement and government officials, Clute said.

(Related: 1 Dead in Manhattan Helicopter Crash)

Pilots seeking to fly from a general aviation airport in the flight restricted zone are required to undergo a background check, according to Clute. Flying to and from Reagan National Airport requires additional approval.

In order to fly, pilots submit an air space access request to the TSA and then receive a waiver outlining where the aircraft is permitted to fly.

All helicopters are required to fly in what the FAA considers “visual meteorological conditions,” which consider visibility and distance to nearby clouds.

In the event of an emergency, Clute said D.C. helicopter pilots prioritize maintaining control of the aircraft and then communicating with air traffic control officials.

It’s still unclear what caused the New York crash, but Clute said the air space regulations put into place after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in both New York and D.C. likely wouldn’t have prevented the incident.

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