NIAGARA FALLS FLIGHT
by Andrew Swart
In July 2015, the Trojan Horsemen (T-28 Aerobatic Formation Demonstration Team) flew over the Niagara Falls in a formation of six aircraft. This seemingly straightforward mission was made unexpectedly challenging by airspace restrictions, multiple government agencies, a tight schedule, and an uncooperative helicopter tour operator. We were in town to perform in the annual air show held at the airport in Niagara Falls, New York….
A week before the show, anticipating the possibility of performing a photo flight, I began to research the airspace. As most people know, the international border runs roughly down the center of the Niagara
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Doug “Rainbo” Hulse as #3 appropriately framed by Horseshoe Falls and Rainbow Bridge, with Ralph "Skydoc" Glasser and American Falls in the background.
click photo to enlarge
River, meaning that the western half of the famous Horseshoe Falls is in Canada and the eastern half is in the US. A number of modern structures on the Canadian side of the river are as high as 500 feet, and are a factor in flight planning. Most importantly, the airspaces below 3,500 MSL (feet above mean sea level) on both the US and Canadian sides of the border are restricted, resulting from a mid-air collision between scenic tour helicopters in 1992. Therefore, any flight directly across the falls below 3,500 MSL must transition both restricted airspaces, requiring prior authorization from both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transport Canada (TC). In the airspace at and above 3,500 MSL, aircraft are expected to fly in a race track pattern at or below 130 knots, which seemed incompatible with a 6-ship formation traveling at almost twice the speed. Also, flying at the higher altitude would have diminished the photographic appeal. (See airspace diagram with contemplated flight path. CYR 518 is the Canadian restricted airspace in the form of “pac man” facing northeast, and the small shaded inset in the “mouth” is the smaller, US restricted air space.)
Requests for flight into CYR 518 must be submitted in writing at least ten days prior, to include a detailed flight profile, measures that would be taken to prevent aircraft from creating a hazard to persons or property, and a graphic depiction of the proposed flight. When I realized that we only had five business days remaining, I rushed in our application. To improve the odds of obtaining an expedited approval I proposed a flight with minimal time in the restricted airspace, a simple, banked pass over the falls, no loitering in the restricted airspace, a remote hold for timing coordination, and emergency egress options to nearby open fields as well as back to the airport. Having never personally visited Niagara Falls, I depended on Google Earth to become familiar with the area, and to develop a flight profile that would accomplish the goal of a formation photograph “over the falls” while addressing FAA and TC concerns. (See proposed flight profile submitted with TC application, which listed up to seven T-28s, to allow for a separate T-28 photo ship if our pyro team arrived with the spare T-28. Later, given the heightened scrutiny surrounding our flight, I was not comfortable substituting an L-39 as the photo ship, even though one was offered.)
The next morning, with the proposed flight only one week out, I received an electronic receipt from TC promising a formal response to my application within six weeks! That started a daily ritual of polite e-mails, including reports of my coordination progress with the six authorized tour operators in CYR 518 — as the applicant, I was responsible for developing a plan to deconflict with other operators in the two restricted airspaces. When I learned that the Canadian operators fly up river, or southbound, at 2,500 MSL, and northbound at 3,000 MSL, I proposed flying at 2,000 MSL to ensure separation without requiring that they stand down (an undesirable revenue impact). 2,000 MSL is 1,500 feet above the top of the falls, which is conveniently the minimum altitude required to remain 1,000 feet above the 500 feet high structures that were within 2,000 feet of our proposed path on the Canadian side (thereby complying with CAR 602.14). For the US operator with its heliport under our proposed flight path, and through which those aircraft would have to climb and descend, we agreed to coordinate our flight to coincide with passenger loading, taking advantage of the hold built into our flight profile. All six operators agreed to the plan, although those with the least revenue at risk showed the most enthusiasm.
During his time I also secured authorization from the FAA to enter the restricted airspace on the US side of the border. This included having conversations with both the FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) and Air Traffic Control (ATC), which led to my discovery that this particular restricted airspace is unusual: ATC (Buffalo) has authority to grant entry authorization, and no waiver is needed from the FSDO (Rochester). It turned out that this unusual arrangement was not widely known, even within the FAA, which led to serious complications on the day of the flight!
When I departed for the show on Thursday morning, I had not received TC authorization and feared we might have to remain in the smaller, US restricted airspace for a modified “falls flight” (plan B). Fortunately, I received our TC authorization on Thursday afternoon, upon arrival. It included a few, unexpected requirements…I needed to independently coordinate the proposed flight with several Canadian-side government agencies, including the Parks Police, Parks Commission, Bridge Commission, City Hall, and Saint Catherine’s Flight Service Station! (Coordination was required “two days prior” to the flight, but this impossible timing requirement was, by necessity, interpreted as a mistake and clarification was not sought.) I was able to contact each of the specified Canadian agencies by Friday morning, all of whom were cooperative and supportive. I also explained that we would be using “show smoke”, in case they received any reports of aircraft “on fire”.
At the Friday morning air show briefing we informed the show organizers and show FSDO rep that we had the necessary government approvals for our flight. The FSDO rep said he wanted to double check with his office and, a few minutes later, relayed bad news from his chief — their view was that a waiver was required to fly through the US restricted airspace, and further, because it was a non-standard, Part 93 waiver, one could only be issued by the FAA office in Washington, DC! To make matters even worse, the ops director at the US helicopter tour operator called to notify me that he now refused to coordinate further based on a conversation with his FSDO rep earlier that morning.
With only a few hours to develop a plan C—a flight profile that avoided US restricted air space, and remained in Canadian restricted air space near the falls—I appealed to the FAA for reconsideration, particularly since it seemed there might have been some confusion about the situation. Later that morning I learned from our show FSDO rep that the FAA had concluded that we did have proper authorization from ATC, and that a written waiver from the FSDO was not required. I left messages for the helo ops director relaying this good news and that he could verify it with the FSDO. Many hours later he told me that he had just been in contact with his FSDO rep, that a waiver WAS required, and that if we flew through the restricted airspace we would be violated. This was incredibly frustrating because when Canadian operators questioned our authorization, I simply e-mailed my TC authorization letter to them. But without a written US waiver that I could similarly produce to prove my claims in connection with US authorities, we appeared to be stuck.
The ops director’s claim of a recent conversation with his FSDO rep was at odds with what I had been told, so I relayed his statement to the show FSDO rep, with a final request for assistance, and then went offline to perform the Trojan Horsemen air show practice (our primary mission!). It seems that authoritative contact between the FSDO and the operator took place during our flight because, after we landed, I had an uncharacteristically cooperative voice-mail from the helo ops director! A quick conversation with him confirmed the original deconfliction plan: since our track and altitudes conflicted, we would manage separation using timing flexibility provided by the hold, and coordinate via the discrete frequency.
The entire air show practice had run quite late on Friday, delaying our photo flight into the early evening, and requiring multiple e-mail and telephone updates to the six operators with revised flight times. By the time we completed our briefing, accommodated our backseaters and launched, it was after 6pm. We made our first pass at 6:20pm and discovered there were no other authorized operators in the air—the discrete frequency was silent! With the restricted airspace to ourselves we made two passes (contemplated in my written application).
Our first pass was configured in a 6-ship delta formation. For the second pass, #6 detached as a photo ship and the flight reconfigured into a 5-ship “vic”. Several beautiful images were captured by back seat passengers in the flight (and, even, possibly some people on the ground). Although the air-to-air images suggest that we flew directly over the falls, I overlaid our ground paths from my Garmin 496 GPS onto Google Earth imagery (see “GPS tracks”) to reveal that the passes were 600 and 1,100 feet upstream of the falls! These substantial offsets upstream confirm how much our 1,500 foot height above the top of the falls affected the photographic perspective. The photographs were also a perfect venue for Doug “Rainbo” Hulse with his #3 aircraft beautifully framed by Horseshoe Falls and Rainbow Bridge!
Finally, a memorable and successful Niagara Falls Flight had taken place despite numerous bureaucratic hurdles and days of uncertainty. It would not have been possible without the patience and timely cooperation of many players, including the air show organizers, authorized tour operators, Transport Canada, the Rochester FSDO, Buffalo ATC, Paul Hewit, and the patience and creative suggestions of Trojan Horsemen team members. All very much appreciated!
Pilots: #1 Andrew “Wizzer” Swart, #2 Mick “Thor” Thorstenson, #3 Doug “Rainbo” Hulse, #4 Jim “Stiffie” Stitt, #5 Ralph “Skydoc” Glasser, #6 Jerry “Jive” Kirby