A Tale of Two Emergencies

An interesting tidbit I picked up at a review session at a UBC’s UILO (University Industrial Liaison Office) a couple weeks ago: apparently the FAA prevented use of unmanned drones during the post-Hurricane Katrina to perform early reconnaissance of the damage. But the story doesn’t stop there…

Apparently the FAA’s been a bit sticky about use of unmanned drones in civilian airspace, citing safety concerns. When military commanders wanted to use drones to survey the damage, the FAA stopped them on the basis that the drones weren’t certified for civilian airspace. The military responded by proposing to bolt the unmanned drone’s sensor package to a helicopter. Again, the FAA denied the request, noting that bolting the package to the helicopter resulted in a new configuration that would require re-certification of the helicopter.


In the end, the military overcame the objections of the FAA by duct taping the sensor package to the helicopter. Apparently, this configuration would not require re-certification, as the alteration did not result in a permanent change to the aircraft.

Keep in mind that, at this point, New Orleans was a disaster zone – even if the unmanned drone fell out of the sky, it’s doubtful that it would have any worse effect on the population than what had already occurred. A perfect example of bureaucracy run amok and working against those it was designed to help and protect.

Contrast that incident with this video of the response executed by New York’s ferry operators when US 1549 dropped into the Hudson. In less than five minutes, there were not one but three New York Water Taxi ferries picking up passengers from the disabled plane’s wings. One can’t help but marvel at their responsive to the emergency (see the 5:45pm entry):

“Someone came into my office and said a plane crashed,” said Tom Fox, general manager of New York Water Taxi, “and we ran out the door.”

Fox rode out to within several hundred yards of the plane on one of three Waterways boats that responded, but authorities indicated that additional help was not needed, apparently because most of the people had already been rescued.

It was probably not the smartest thing to do. That response probably violated a lot of the company’s rules. And yet, it was the right response.

Now, it’s probably not fair to compare the two incidents. Katrina was a slow evolving disaster with many facets hidden from plain view, whereas the US Airways crash was a clear and easily understood event. The water taxi manager’s response to the aircraft crash was likely further provoked by more recent experience with disasterous events (I’m thinking 9/11 specifically).

Yet, as I look at the multitude of global challenges we currently face, I hope that we will respond more like the guys driving the water taxis and less like the FAA.