An air traffic controller making a personal phone call initially failed to warn a small plane of other aircraft in its path and then tried unsuccessfully to contact the pilot, federal safety officials said Friday. Moments later, the plane collided with a tour helicopter over the Hudson River, killing nine people.
The controller handling the plane and his supervisor at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey at the time of last Saturday's accident have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in a report that the controller — who has not been identified — cleared the single-engine Piper for takeoff at 11:48 a.m. EDT, and then made a telephone call. He remained on the phone, including while further instructing the plane's pilot, until the accident occurred.
After takeoff, the plane flew southbound until the controller directed it to turn left toward the river, the report said. At 11:52 and 20 seconds, the controller instructed the plane to contact air traffic control at nearby Newark Liberty International Airport, which monitors low-flying traffic over the river, but doesn't attempt to separate aircraft.
The pilot apparently did not contact Newark, the report said.
Plane faced many obstacles
Radar data show there were several aircraft immediately ahead of the plane, including the tour helicopter, "all of which were potential traffic conflicts for the airplane," but the Teterboro controller didn't warn the pilot, the report said.
It wasn't until controllers at the Newark airport alerted the Teterboro controller to the potential collision that he twice tried unsuccessfully to contact the pilot, the report said. The collision occurred at 11:53 and 14 seconds.
At the time the Newark controllers were alerting the Teterboro controller to the danger, they also recommended the plane turn southwest. The plane's pilot apparently overhead that and acknowledged the instruction, the report said.
Video of the crash taken by a tourist sightseeing near the Statute of Liberty show the Piper changing direction seconds before its wing was clipped by the helicopter's rotors. The plane then broke apart in the air and both aircraft plunged into the Hudson.
Also, 20 seconds before the crash, a radar data processing system set off audible alarms and a "conflict alert" warning of the impending crash appeared on radar displays in Teterboro and Newark, but controllers at both airports told NTSB they don't recall hearing or seeing the warnings.
FAA said in a statement late Thursday there is no reason to believe that the controller's actions contributed to the accident. However, the agency said the phone conversation was inappropriate and such conduct is unacceptable.
Supervisor under investigation
The supervisor's conduct also is being investigated because he was out of the building at the time. Controllers, including supervisors, are expected to be available throughout their work shift in case they are needed, even if they are taking a break.
The NTSB report said two other Teterboro controllers were taking a break at the time of the accident. The only controllers on duty were the controller who was talking on the phone and another controller who was handling arriving planes and ground traffic.
The phone call by the Teterboro controller was to a female employee of Baltimore-based AvPORTS, a contractor for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages the airport, according to port authority officials.
Call concerned dead cat
The two were discussing a dead cat that had been removed from airport grounds, said a former union official and other sources familiar with the contents of the call.
"He was talking to the Port Authority about a dead cat on the taxiway. It was a work-related call, and it turned into a silly conversation. There was a little banter," said Barrett Byrnes, a recently retired air traffic controller and former National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative who stays in touch with New York and New Jersey controllers.
The port authority said in a statement Friday that the agency would wait before deciding whether to discipline the female employee who took the phone call from the controller.
"We are coordinating with the NTSB on this ongoing investigation. Based on the findings when the investigation is completed, we will take whatever appropriate action is necessary regarding this contract employee and contractor," the statement said.
AvPORTS is a private aviation management contractor that handles many of Teterboro's ground operations.