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Can Helicopters Fly Over Manhattan, New York City?

Manhattan is a city of more than 12-million people, yet pilots are still flying helicopters over it on a regular basis. Some people have the impression that this is illegal, while others are just curious about what the laws are regarding flying over a city this size. The truth is somewhere in between.

Can Helicopters Fly Over Manhattan?

In the late 1970s, New York City banned helicopters from landing on rooftop helipads because of the dangers it presented, but it didn’t last long. Today there are certain restrictions in place, but helicopters are still allowed to take off and land using one of the three helipads in the city. They carry everyone from government officials to tourists and even some business travelers.

Statue of Liberty Helicopter
Editorial Team Statue of Liberty Helicopter

Flying over NYC: Restrictions

Although Manhattan helicopter flights are still allowed, there are certain restrictions included. For instance, helicopter pilots can only fly 1,000 feet above the tallest obstacle, with a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet from the copter. A crash that occurred in June of 2019 caused several officials to ask the FAA to ban helicopters from flying in the city.

If helicopters fly any higher than 1,000 feet above the tallest building, they would need to be directed by the air traffic controllers at LaGuardia Airport. This is one of the reasons why that limit was set, and also why some people think it is inappropriate.

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In fact, many members of Congress and other officials say that there is too much risk to the people on the ground to allow helicopters to fly over the city. Despite the restrictions, it is always possible for a helicopter to crash into a crowd, which would be disastrous.

Flying over NYC: The Law

Unfortunately, it isn’t always businesspeople and city officials who use helicopters. In the past several years, there have been tourists who died while participating in a tourism helicopter tour – the latest was in March of 2018 that killed five people from Italy.

Not that any death is insignificant. In fact, one death from a helicopter crash is one too many. However, when you consider how many people from different walks of life have been killed in a helicopter flying over New York City, you’ll understand why it has so many people concerned.

Editorial Team HeliFlite executive helicopter landing at the East 34th Street heliport in Manhattan, New York City, on the East River

Many times, the air space around the helipad is unrestricted. Such is the case with the helipad on the East River VFR (visual flight rules) corridor, which is located starting at Governor’s Island and extending to the northern part of Roosevelt Island.

If you have a license and a registered helicopter, you can fly within this zone. As long as you announce the type of copter you have and your current location, Manhattan helicopter flights can take place without much in the way of restrictions or rules.

Other corridors apply similar rules, which means if you’re flying at 1,000 feet below the highest obstacle, there are very few, if any, restrictions to make your life complicated. But this isn’t necessarily a good thing because few restrictions often mean more chances of something bad happening.

Helicopter over Manhattan
Editorial Team Helicopter over Manhattan

What does this mean, exactly? It means that much like driving a car in New York City, the safety of the drivers/pilots and the people around them is largely dictated by the operators themselves. So, if the pilot messes up, catastrophe can result, and this is never a good thing.

Flying Over NYC is Possible In Many Cases

Fortunately, there is some good news regarding Manhattan helicopter flights over the city. First of all, there are certain times flights are restricted; for example, when certain political conventions or a presidential visit is planned. This helps reduce the chances of a crash from occurring.

George W. Bush on Marine One at Downtown Manhattan Heliport
Editorial Team George W. Bush on Marine One at Downtown Manhattan Heliport

In addition, if you wish to fly outside of the parameters set by the restrictions – which many helicopter pilots do – you will be controlled by the air traffic controllers at LaGuardia Airport, making the entire trip a lot more safe. 

Not to mention the fact that most helicopter pilots are well-trained and very conscientious when they fly. It isn’t as if helicopters are flying haphazardly all over Manhattan all hours of the day. There are still restrictions to make this activity safer, which is why there are seldom any accidents involving helicopters.

helicopter sits on the helipad at Manhattan Heliport, Lower Manhattan, New York City
Editorial Team Helicopter sits on the helipad at Manhattan Heliport, Lower Manhattan, New York City

Does this mean that a better job shouldn’t be done to keep people even safer? Of course not, but it does mean that overall, Manhattan helicopter flights are safe and reliable, and there is little need to worry about disasters occurring frequently because it simply doesn’t happen.

Remember that helicopters are flying over Manhattan regularly, because they are used to transport people to JFK Airport, to show tourists the sights of the city, and to film scenes from certain television shows and movies. This is a lot of helicopter activity, and it isn’t likely to wane anytime soon.

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If you are concerned, however, all you have to do is conduct a little research on your own so that you can feel more confident in your pilot and the company behind them.

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