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Barry Maggio’s Rendezvous with Lady Liberty

By Dan Grunloh, Editor, Light Plane World
Statue of Liberty
Barry Maggio’s photo of Lady Liberty

Private pilot Barry Maggio was happy. His intricate plan to photograph the Statue of Liberty on the Hudson River in downtown New York from the seat of his own aircraft had gone perfectly. The new video camera was working great as was the mount fabricated from a conventional camera tripod. It was barely 7:30 a.m., and he was now 500 feet above the Hudson River approaching the George Washington Bridge. His predawn takeoff two hours earlier from the Ellington, Connecticut, airport had paid off because traffic in the low-level visual flight rules (VFR) corridor was light that Memorial Day holiday morning. 

The last thing he wanted to do was mix it up with the sightseeing and news helicopters while trying to take pictures. The 100-hp Rotax 912S engine of his fully equipped factory-built special light-sport aircraft (S-LSA) was running smoothly, and it’s a good thing, too, because there’s absolutely no suitable place to land here – the New York City Class B Hudson River exclusion zone special flight rules area (SFRA). If the engine quit, he was going for a swim. However, Barry was already in trouble and didn’t know it.

The first hint of a problem came on the screen of his onboard Portable Collision Avoidance System (PCAS). This clever device detects all aircraft transponders in its vicinity and displays the information to the pilot. Barry had the unit installed because he operates his LSA in some of the most crowded airspace imaginable. His PCAS had a contact close on his tail and 200 feet above his position. He needed to climb slightly to avoid crossing the George Washington Bridge at 500 feet, but doing so would put him in front of the overtaking aircraft. So Barry made the first radio call in what became, as he described, “an interesting experience.” His call on the appropriate frequency began with “Ultralight approaching G.W. Bridge,” which requires some explanation. Instructions for communications indicate using aircraft type, no N-number, and abbreviating the location to minimize radio traffic.

Barry’s view of New York City from the Hudson River

Barry was flying an Apollo Monsoon weight-shift-control S-LSA trike distributed by Tampa Bay AeroSport. He had tried unsuccessfully to communicate in this busy area during previous flights by calling it a light-sport aircraft. His trike is often the most announced aircraft in the lane; all the pilots call out his location and altitude to the others, always referring to it as an ultralight. He finally gave up and used the ultralight terminology to avoid confusion and get the message across quickly.

The required location call at the G.W. Bridge produced a reply from the pilot of a New York Police Department aircraft, saying, “Where are you headed?” and “How much fuel on board?” Barry still couldn’t see the actual aircraft on his tail. After he answered the questions, the officer said, “We need to talk. Do you want to go to Teterboro or Westchester County?” Barry hadn’t been to either one but knew he didn’t want to go to Teterboro. With the destination selected, the NYPD helicopter zoomed past him to lead the way. As he brought up the Westchester County Airport (KHPN – on the border with Connecticut) on his Enigma electronic flight information system, he couldn’t have known that an alarm had been raised saying, “An ultralight buzzed the Statue of Liberty.”

NYPD Helicopter
NYPD helicopter that intercepted Barry Maggio

Barry listened to the automatic terminal information service as they approached Westchester County Airport, then called the tower reporting “a flight of two.” After landing on the runway, the airport closed it for 20 minutes while the NYPD interviewed him, checked his credentials, and viewed the continuous in-flight video he had made of his adventure. Once the officers determined he wasn’t a terrorist and after consulting the FAA, Barry was permitted to continue his flight up the Hudson River. His video refuted the claim by Liberty Park police that he flew within 150 feet of the 300-foot-tall statue. In fact he was always over the water and was in the same airspace routinely used by sightseeing helicopter tours. Barry said once the police had established he wasn’t a terrorist, they were quite friendly and polite. Some even said they might like to go for a ride someday.

Barry's trike
NYPD checks out Barry’s trike at Westchester County Airport.

The incident can be attributed to a combination of factors. The appearance of an unusual aircraft at low altitude close to the statue very early on the morning of a national holiday looked even more suspicious because of the nature of his camera mount. It faced mostly forward and couldn’t accommodate a shot to the side. Instead of circling the statue like all the tour helicopters, he flew straight on toward it, veering off at the last moment while still over the waters of the Hudson River. His maneuver may have looked like a practice run for a terrorist attack to observers on the ground. Barry learned later that local news reports caused city residents to fear this was the prelude to another terrorist attack like the one in 2001. Even after news reports clearly stated it wasn’t a terrorist attack, anonymous news bloggers were writing that he should have been shot down to teach all ultralight pilots a lesson, and that he wasn’t fit to ride a bicycle, let alone fly a plane.

Barry knew he was within his rights to use the airspace and was well aware of the regulations pertaining to his flight. He had previously attended a seminar for users of the Hudson River VFR corridor. About 60 pilots were present, and he said he asked more questions than anyone else. There were specific questions related to his intended flight. He said, “I asked them if I could approach the statue at low altitude to take pictures so long as I stayed over the water, and I was told yes.” The FAA has also established an online training course to help pilots understand the procedures for users of the Hudson River SFRA.

On June 14, 2010, Barry was contacted by the New York Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), stating that the investigation of his flight near the Statue of Liberty on the morning of May 31 is being closed. He wasn’t found to be in violation of any regulations, partly due to the recent changes in the Part 91 rules. There might have been a different outcome if he had been flying a fixed-wing airplane or if the flight had taken place prior to April 10, 2010. That’s when the announced changes to the federal regulations pertaining to sport pilots took effect. One of those changes granted powered parachutes and weight-shift-control trikes the same minimum altitude requirements as helicopters when flying over sparsely populated areas and open waters such as the Hudson River under the New York City Class B Hudson River SFRA. The change gets rid of the 500 feet clearance from people and structures. It’s replaced by “without hazard to persons or property,” the same as for helicopters.

Barry's trike
Barry is an active pilot all year round; shown here after landing on a frozen lake in winter.

Although Barry describes his flight as “an interesting experience,” he would probably agree with a saying well known among airline pilots. “Life is simpler if you don’t make the news.” The new FAA regulations about minimum safe altitudes are reproduced below.

§ 91.119 Minimum safe altitudes: General

Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:

(a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.

(b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.

(c) Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.

(d) Helicopters, powered parachutes, and weight-shift-control aircraft. If the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface –

(1) A helicopter may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in paragraph (b) or (c) of this section, provided each person operating the helicopter complies with any routes or altitudes specifically prescribed for helicopters by the FAA; and

(2) A powered parachute or weight-shift-control aircraft may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in paragraph (c) of this section.

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