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NTSB eyes Hudson airspace as victims' search continues

The wreckage of a helicopter is lifted by

The wreckage of a helicopter is lifted by crane from the Hudson River and placed on a boat as seen from Hoboken, N.J. (Aug. 9, 2009) Credit: AP

As investigators continued to search murky waters for the final victims of a midair collision that killed nine, the National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman said Sunday it would examine the bustling airspace known as the Hudson River Corridor, which pilots negotiate without the guidance of air traffic controllers.

Click here for the latest photos from the Hudson River helicopter-plane collision

In this busy corridor, where small aircraft communicate using a single, voluntary radio channel, a sightseeing helicopter was climbing near Hoboken, N.J., on Saturday when it was apparently struck from behind by a small private plane at about 1,100 feet.

"We do know it's very congested. We know there are a lot of different types of operations that occur in this airspace. There are major airports," NTSB chairwoman Debbie Hersman said at a news conference in Hoboken.

"We're going to look at all of these issues," she said.


Wreckage pulled from river

As investigators continued to search for answers, an Army Corps of Engineers boat pulled the helicopter's crumpled frame from the Hudson Sunday, and investigators recovered a seventh body. New York City police said they had located the submerged fuselage of the plane just north of the crash site.

Jeffrey Smith, chairman of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, defended his industry's safety record and called the crash a tragic anomaly.

Referring to the Hudson River Corridor, where small aircraft flying below 1,100 feet are not required to file a flight plan or communicate with air traffic control, Smith said: "This is one of those areas where you have to do the right thing.

"You don't act differently, because you are trained to keep your head on a swivel," said Smith, who has flown for Liberty Helicopter, which owned the downed copter.

Under visual flight rules, pilots must call out their positions at checkpoints, such as Holland Tunnel, on a radio channel, he said.


The victims

Three members of a Pennsylvania family were killed in the private plane and five Italian tourists and a pilot from New Jersey in the helicopter.

Shortly before 1 p.m. Sunday, a crane on a drift collection vessel used by the Army Corps of Engineers lifted the copter's fuselage from the Hudson and placed it, upside down, on the boat's deck.

The helicopter's emergency pontoons were inflated. Workers covered the aircraft with a blue tarp.

Hersman said a nearby helicopter pilot saw the plane approaching the in-flight helicopter. He radioed the doomed helicopter and said, "You have a fixed-wing behind you," but there was no response from the pilot, Hersman said.

The pilot then saw the plane's right wing clip the helicopter, and both aircraft split apart and fell into the river, she said.

NYPD boats about 100 yards from Hoboken's waterfront circled three buoys that marked the wreckage of the helicopter Sunday, and three New Jersey State Police divers were in the choppy waters.

The river's strong currents and 1-foot visibility hampered recovery efforts.

"The current and undertow are very strong in the Hudson, plus the murky conditions underneath," Hoboken Police Capt. Anthony Romano said. The river bottom is full of debris, he added.

Hersman said she did not expect the two aircraft to have black boxes or other recording devices. Aircraft of their size are not required to have such equipment.

She said investigators are hoping to find video recordings of the crash that could help them determine what happened.

With Daniel Edward Rosen, Sarah Portlock, Jennifer Smith and AP

Click here for the latest photos from the Hudson River helicopter-plane collision

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