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NOAA Integrated Ocean Observing System Program

Stevens Institute of Technology

New York Harbor Observing and Prediction System

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Ocean Observations and Critical Response: The Hudson River Story

Ocean observation data proved critical in the days and weeks following a tragic mid-air collision above the Hudson River. The crash between a small plane, carrying a pilot and two passengers, and a sightseeing helicopter, including a pilot and five Italian tourists, occurred on August 8, 2009. 

The collision kicked off a multi-agency search for survivors, wreckage, and clues as to what happened.  Though all those aboard the plane and helicopter lost their lives, NOAA partners reacted quickly by supplying crucial data from the national Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS®) to aid in response and salvage efforts.

NOAA analyst

NOAA and partners supported response and salvage efforts following the Hudson River mid-air collision by providing critical, real-time data.

Within an hour of the accident, the Stevens Institute Chief of Technology, a Mid-Atlantic regional partner of NOAA’s IOOS Program, called staff to the scene to analyze currents in the proposed search area. Models of currents, created with information from ocean observing data, helped the New York Police Department, New Jersey State Police, Federal Bureau of Investigation dive teams, and the U.S. Coast Guard aerial search teams to plan response efforts when conditions would be optimal.

This information proved invaluable to search and recovery over the initial two day period, allowing the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to lift the helicopter from the Hudson at the precise window of opportunity when models predicted zero currents. This enabled recovery of the wreckage without breakage or loss of contents.

High frequency radar

Ocean observations are collected using a variety of tools including satellites, buoys, tide gauges, underwater vehicles, or even high frequency radar as shown here.

Three days after the collision, crews continued to search for pieces of the wreckage. A research engineer used ocean observation data from the New York Harbor Observing and Prediction System to provide simulations highlighting the extent of the possible search area. Researchers ran simulations that narrowed down a search and recovery area to a few miles radius around the impact location. Divers used the information to successfully recover a windshield frame, a portion of the fuselage, and inspect various location targets. 

Although the mid-air collision was a tragedy, the teamwork, analysis, and efforts of the multi-agency recovery effort provided answers about what occurred and information on how accidents like this can be avoided in the future.