A helicopter that crashed last week into the Hudson River took off from a controversial heliport that Hudson River Park advocates have been trying for more than two decades to shut down for safety and environmental reasons.
New York City has three commercial heliports, all in Manhattan. But unlike the heliports at Wall Street and East 34th Street, the one at West 30th Street is located within the boundaries of a public park —Hudson River Park — and which operates in close proximity to a heavily used bike and pedestrian path along the river.
No one was seriously hurt during last Wednesday’s accident, which saw a pilot escape with minor injuries. But the accident has raised safety concerns about helicopters and their increasing use by tourists as well as Hamptons-bound New Yorkers, who pay as much as $795 each way for a ride that takes less than an hour, according to the New York Times.
In the case of the West 30th Street heliport, the helicopters land and take off roughly 20 feet from a well-traveled greenway pedestrian and bike path. The heliport is also the only one that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It appears to be the second busiest of the three facilities in New York City, recording 12,000 flights last year, all of which were corporate, according to a Wall Street Journal story last November.
“We’ve just narrowly averted disaster,” said Adrian Benepe, the former city parks commissioner who served under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “It’s terrible public policy.”
Benepe is a member of Stop the Chop, a group that calls for banning all commercial flights over the city.
In March 2018, a helicopter crash in the East River killed all five passengers, with only the pilot able to escape. The helicopter was owned by Liberty Helicopters, which ran "doors-off" sightseeing tours. Such flights have since been banned.
Along with safety hazards, helicopters are notorious polluters. Each helicopter produces 950 pounds of carbon dioxide per hour, according to Stop the Chop. By comparison, the average car produces 22 pounds per hour.
“It’s a horrible act of hypocrisy for the de Blasio administration,” he said. “The supposedly most environmental city is subsiding the most polluting industry.”
A City Hall spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.
West Side residents and park advocates have over the years tried unsuccessfully to remove the heliport, citing the noise generated by the aircrafts as well as the toxic fumes. In 2007, Friends of Hudson River Trust, a fundraising arm for Hudson River Park, sued Hudson River Trust and the heliport’s operators to remove the facility on the grounds that its presence violated the state act that created the park in 1998.
In 2008, the two sides reached a settlement that guaranteed that the heliport would be relocated or closed by 2010, with an ultimate deadline of 2014. However, in 2013, the state passed a bill that enabled the heliport to stay in place in perpetuity.
The West 30th Street heliport is currently operated by Air Pegasus. On Monday, after Gothamist asked to speak to someone about longstanding issues regarding the heliport, a representative on the other end hung up the phone.
In 2017, Air Pegasus was ordered to pay $250,000 to the Hudson River Park Trust for violating a ban on tourist flights.
Over the years, the Hudson River Trust has been reported to be working with Air Pegasus to relocate the helipad. One of the options floated under the 2013 state amendment was moving it to a barge 1,000 feet off the park’s shore.
The Trust's board of directors consists of 13 members. Five are appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, five by Governor Andrew Cuomo and three by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. The board has long been chaired by Diana Taylor, a former state aide and the longtime companion of former mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is known to be an ardent fan and pilot of helicopters.
A representative for the Hudson River Trust declined to comment.
One longtime resident of Chelsea, who asked not to be identified for privacy reasons, said he has unsuccessfully tried to get in touch with the Trust to speak about the matter. A 65-year-old bike commuter, he said he passes the heliport regularly and recently shot a video to show how close the helicopters are to cyclists and pedestrians.
“What they are doing is crop dusting the Hudson River and park,” he told Gothamist, referring the helicopter exhaust circulated by the aircrafts’ blades.
He said he also routinely sees black SUVs idling as they await passengers.
Benepe urged the city and state to take swift action, something he said they could easily do at all of the heliport locations.
“The more and more you have these flights, I guarantee that something will go wrong," he said. "There’s nothing in the public interest in having these helicopter flights.”
UPDATE: The original version of this story misstated the age of the Chelsea resident who spoke to Gothamist.