Air Traffic Controller Partially Vindicated

In a rare move, the NTSB revises its account of what happened

A helicopter hit by a small plane over the Hudson River was not initially visible to an air traffic controller handling the plane, federal safety officials say in a revised account of the deadly collision.

The statement by the National Transportation Safety Board, issued after public pressure from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, provides some vindication to the controller at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

The revision is unusual and so is the public spat between the two organizations. Last week, investigators admonished an air traffic controller for being on the phone with his girlfriend when the two aircraft collided. The NTSB said the controller failed to warn the plane's pilot of the potential for a collision with several aircraft in its path, including the helicopter, before handing off responsibility for the plane to another airport. The agency said while it appears the controller's conduct didn't have any impact on the crash, his behavior was inappropriate and unacceptable.

No one survived the Aug. 8 accident over the river between New York and New Jersey. Three members of the Altman family from Montgomery County were aboard the airplane and five Italian tourists and a pilot were aboard the helicopter.

In its revised account, the board said Monday that while the controller at Teterboro failed to warn of several aircraft in the path of the single-engine Piper, the tour helicopter wasn't one of the aircraft on the controller's radar screen until seven seconds after the handoff to nearby Newark Liberty International Airport. The traffic controller's union had been pushing publicly for NTSB to correct the account, an unusual move that caused NTSB to boot the union from the investigation.

"It's important that the NTSB has clarified this key point in the sequence of events. All we want to see is a factual account of the incident and we continue to believe the facts show that our Teterboro controller could not have done anything to prevent this horrible tragedy," said Union spokesman Doug Church.

NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said in the board's statement that parties to investigations signed an agreement not to publicly discuss the information gathered by the board while the investigation is ongoing.

"Although we appreciate the technical expertise our parties provide during the course of an investigation," Hersman said, "it
is counterproductive when an organization breaches the party agreement and publicly interprets or comments on factual information generated by that investigation. Our rules are set up precisely to avoid the prospect of each party offering their slant on the information."

The controller and his supervisor, who was out of the building at the time of the collision, have been placed on administrative leave with pay by the FAA.

The NTSB said it would decide what role the controller played in the accident, and other opinions are "speculative and premature."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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