These pilots asked for a once-in-a-lifetime flight over NYC — and air traffic controllers granted it

Apr 19, 2020

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The coronavirus pandemic is leading to lots of interesting flights across the world. We’re seeing airlines fly their longest flights ever to countries they’ve never flown to before to repatriate citizens stranded abroad.

Here in America, airlines are responding to the near-zero demand for travel by greatly reducing flight schedules. Some, like Alaska, are even redrawing their route maps to include “tag” flights that help the carrier consolidate its routes.

But while passenger flights may be significantly scaled back, cargo operations are busier than ever. Aside from dedicated cargo carriers, traditional airlines are also flying cargo-only flights using passenger jets. But even still, the nationwide airspace is seeing a drastic reduction in the number of flights overhead.

That’s especially true for my home of New York City. All major airlines have drastically reduced service to the New York area, and some have even temporarily halted operations completely. So, these days, when I hear a jet flying overhead, it’s news to me. I’ll then pull up FlightRadar24 and figure out where it’s going, most likely to some cargo hub city like Anchorage, Alaska or Louisville, Kentucky.

This past Thursday, however, attentive New Yorkers heard an engine roar at around 2 p.m. that sounded much different from others. It was a low flying jet taking the scenic route directly over midtown Manhattan!

As noticed by Joseph Tar Schmidt on Twitter, it was a FedEx MD-11F freighter on its way to Portland with flight number FedEx 3034. The plane departed from Newark’s runway 22R before making a sharp left turn to head over Manhattan. It passed over Governors Island with a great view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island just moments after takeoff. It then continued up Manhattan, practically paralleling Broadway before turning left from the island just west of Columbus Circle.

Map courtesy of FlightRadar24 and Google
Map courtesy of FlightRadar24 and Google

Throughout the flyover, the jet was flying at just around 2,800 feet, which sure made for some fantastic views throughout the first few minutes of the flight.

Aviation geeks like me (check out my Instagram for all my shots!) will be quick to note that these pilots were in for a treat. Not just with the amazing NYC views, but with the type of plane they were flying. You see, the MD-11F is unique in that it’s got massive cockpit windows. This is often one of a pilot’s favorite things about this aircraft type, as many have said that they miss the comfort of the MD-11 cockpit (the passenger version of the MD-11F is no longer in service).

FedEx MD-11F (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)
FedEx MD-11F (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

So, how did these FedEx pilots score such an awesome flight path? Turns out, they asked nicely! As you can hear from the air traffic control (ATC) audio compiled by Twitter user Thenewarea51, the FedEx pilot asked for a flyover of New York City. And with practically no other air traffic over the New York City area, the controllers granted their request.

Though the audio is a bit choppy, it paints a vivid picture of what was going on in the flight deck that Thursday afternoon. About midway through, we hear the pilot exclaim, “Wow, what a view.” He then continues, “That’s unbelievable. Thank you very much.”

The transmission ends with a final thank you from the pilot: “Thank you very, very much again. Stay well.” The FedEx jet then ascended to its cruising altitude and touched down hours later on the west coast.

And now, three days later, I’m still waiting for the pilots to share any pictures and videos they captured from their Manhattan flyover.

Featured image by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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