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Controller in fatal midair crash placed on leave

The air traffic controller responsible for handling the airplane involved in Saturday's fatal midair collision with a helicopter over the Hudson River was put on administrative leave Thursday.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The air traffic controller responsible for handling the airplane involved in Saturday's fatal midair collision with a helicopter over the Hudson River was put on administrative leave Thursday after investigators said he was involved in “apparently inappropriate conversations on the telephone at the time of the accident.”

The crash killed all nine people aboard both aircraft, including three people from a Pennsylvania family on the plane and five Italian tourists and a pilot on the helicopter. The collision, in broad daylight on a clear weekend afternoon, has led some officials to call for greater regulation of the busy airspace surrounding the Manhattan and New Jersey waterfronts.

The FAA said in a statement Thursday that disciplinary proceedings have begun against the controller and his supervisor, who was not present in the building as required.

“While we have no reason to believe at this time that these actions contributed to the accident, this kind of conduct is unacceptable, and we have placed the employees on administrative leave ” the FAA said, adding that the agency is working with the National Transportation Safety Board in investigating the crash.

The accident was caught on video by an Italian tourist who was practicing with a new camera. It was aired Thursday on "NBC Nightly News."

The video shows the plane climbing and turning slightly before its wing clips the helicopter's rotor blades. The plane can be seen overturning and falling toward the water between New York and New Jersey.

One or more onlookers can be heard in the background saying, "Oh, my God!" Federal investigators have asked anyone with images of the crash to turn them over.

Interviews planned
Shortly after the crash, investigators said they planned to conduct interviews with controllers at Newark Liberty International Airport to try to piece together the flight route of the small plane into the Hudson River corridor, where it smashed into the helicopter at 1,100 feet.

Air traffic control transcripts described Monday indicate a worry-free exchange between controllers at Teterboro, in New Jersey, and the plane's pilot, Steven Altman, who was told he could pick his flight path toward Ocean City, where he was flying after picking up his brother Daniel Altman and teenage nephew Douglas Altman.

The air traffic controller at Teterboro Airport gave him two choices: Head down the river, or take a southwest tack.

A sight-seeing helicopter and a small plane collided over the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. Authorities believe all nine people aboard were killed.

When a Teterboro controller asked the pilot if he wanted to go down the river or head southwest, he responded by saying: "Either."

"Let me know," the controller said.

"OK, tell you what," Altman replied, "I'll take down the river."

NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman said air traffic controllers at Teterboro at some point told Altman to switch radio frequencies so Newark controllers could communicate with him, but Newark never made contact, she said.

The collision at around noon on a sunny Saturday occurred in a congested flyway popular with sightseers. Hersman said an eight-day NTSB survey of the river corridor before the collision had counted about 225 aircraft flying within a 3-mile radius of the collision site each day.

Many of these tour craft fly below 1,100 feet, where pilots are largely free to choose their own routes, radioing their positions periodically but not communicating regularly with air traffic controllers.