If you want to see the New York City skyline at its finest, you should take a plane and see it in the sky. When the lighting is optimal, the concrete jungle radiates beneath the warm hues of the golden hour, creating an awe-inspiring spectacle. Tons of helicopter companies offer such trips around New York City. However, if you are a pilot, or you have a friend who is a pilot, you can do this yourself.
The Hudson River separates New Jersey and Manhattan. Notably, it has become a preferred corridor for helicopter and VFR (Visual Flight Rules) traffic in the New York City region due to its wideness, obstacle-free expanse, a characteristic aptly described by Captain Sully. Overlying this area is the New York Class B airspace, representing some of the busiest airspace in the country. Pilots flying under VFR require clearance to enter the Class B airspace. Nonetheless, specialized procedures have been established within the Hudson River Corridor, facilitating VFR traffic's access to this airspace, granting a unique opportunity to savor the captivating spectacle of the New York City skyline.
To navigate in this area, pilots must attend an online course to familiarize themselves with the airspace and procedures. The whole course will take around 90 minutes to complete, which will introduce the pilots to the procedures and mandatory flying reporting points on specific frequencies. I will not be spending too much time explaining the entire procedure here, as you can get the official versions from the course. However, being a pilot who was trained in that area and has flown the route multiple times, I would like to share some personal tips and tricks for this unique experience.
Essentially, you can fly the corridor in two ways:
Fly in the VFR exclusion area, which will put you outside the New York Class B airspace, below 1300ft;
Inside the Class B airspace between 1500ft and 2000ft.
Personally, I prefer to stay in the class B airspace between 1500ft and 2000ft, talking to the air traffic controllers. For one, it is because they are the best controllers you can talk to – they are the most skilled and reliable communicators, trying to give you all the requests that you ask them. More importantly, however, you will have an extra set of eyes to help you see other aircraft sharing the airspace. And believe me, the traffic can get saturated from time to time, especially when the weather is good (even at night).
Now, the choice is yours:
Fly in the Class B airspace:
If you want to fly in the class B airspace for this route, you can follow the guidance of the “Skyline Route” in the online course. Being in this area for a long time, I have never experienced a denied class B clearance from the controller. If you are joining the skyline route from the south (from Verrazzano Bridge), it would be a good idea to take a look at the traffic flow of Newark Airport (EWR) before you go. If EWR is using runway 4s, then the arrival traffic will cross overhead at around 3000ft. It would be a good idea to keep your VFR altitude at or below 2500ft to avoid potential conflicts (even though the most outer-ring of the class B starts at 3000ft). It is also a great idea to stay away from the final approach path in this case to help the controller. "GRITY" is usually where the traffic goes to EWR to intercept the localizer around 3000ft. You can go further south and west to join the corridor. If EWR is using runway 22s, then there is generally less traffic on the south side at low altitudes.
Before Entering the Corridor:
You can talk to New York Approach on 128.55 (128.8 occasionally from experience when 128.55 is dead), asking for a hand-off for the Skyline Route. Normally, they will give you a squawk code and transfer you to Newark Tower (127.85 or 118.3 when not busy) for further. There is also a chance they switch you over to New York Approach on 120.8 for better radio reception and workload management. However, when EWR is using runway 4s, the 128.55 sector will get really busy because they are the Final controllers (all you will hear is one United after another). If that is the case, you can still monitor the frequency for situational awareness. But it might be better to stay below the class B airspace and contract Newark Tower directly on 127.85 when you get closer to the VZ bridge for the class B clearance.
In the Corridor:
Once you get your clearance, you can generally expect 1500ft for the northbound route and 2000ft for the southbound route over the river. As you get closer to Intrepid, you will be switched over to La Guardia Tower (126.05 normally) for further instructions. Perks of staying in the Class B airspace: So….you’ve done all of those hard work, are there any rewards? Absolutely! It is not an official procedure that is listed anywhere, but since you are already in the controlled airspace, you can request a turn over Central Park and join the East River Southbound on the other side. To do this, let La Guardia Tower know your intentions. It is typically a good practice to make the turn over the park before the reservoir/lake. You will then see the magnificent midtown Manhattan from the right side of your airplane.
As you make that turn, you can expect a climb clearance from La Guardia to 2000ft. Pay close attention as you make this tight climbing turn. Do not put your plane in a stalling situation because the view distracts you. Once you join the East River, you can expect a hand-off back to Newark Tower (127.85) near the Manhattan Bridge. At that point, you can communicate with the controller to see what you want to do next. Normally, you can re-join the Skyline Route, depart the area (check out) from VZ, overfly EWR (more on that on the next blog), or make some orbits over the Lady (Statue of Liberty).
Fly in the VFR Exclusion:
There isn’t too much to talk about to fly in the exclusion. Please follow the procedure and report your position at each reporting point. Keep your eyes out for all kinds of traffic. You have less freedom of your flight path in the exclusion, in my opinion, as it is only up-and-down the river.
It is worthwhile to take this trip and fly this route at some point, as you can't beat the view. Perhaps ask a pilot who has flown this route before to go with you for the first time, especially if you are not familiar with the landmarks or not used to talking to fast-paced ATCs. It is hard to navigate this tight airspace, take pictures, and talk to passengers at the same time for the first time. Pay attention to the flying part first, as a pilot. Keep the corridor and the people below you safe.