Controllers in the crosshairs

I mentioned in Five at 8 this morning that an air traffic controller in Teterboro, New Jersey has been suspended because he was on the phone with his girlfriend when a helicopter and plane collided over the Hudson River, killing all nine people.

Morning news reports said the phone call didn’t have anything to do with the crash, but a news release from the National Transportation Safety Board seems to say otherwise.

Here’s the release:

The tower controller advised the airplane and the pilot of another helicopter operating in the area of each other and instructed the pilot of the airplane to remain at or below 1,100 feet. At this time, the tower controller initiated a non-business-related phone call to Teterboro Airport Operations. The airplane flew southbound until the controller instructed its pilot to turn left to join the Hudson River. At 1152:20 the Teterboro controller instructed the pilot to contact Newark on a frequency of 127.85; the airplane reached the Hudson River just north of Hoboken about 40 seconds later.

At that time there were several aircraft detected by radar in the area immediately ahead of the airplane, including the accident helicopter, all of which were potential traffic conflicts for the airplane. The Teterboro tower controller, who was engaged in a phone call at the time, did not advise the pilot of the potential traffic conflicts.

The Newark tower controller observed air traffic over the Hudson River and called Teterboro to ask that the controller instruct the pilot of the airplane to turn toward the southwest to resolve the potential conflicts. The Teterboro controller then attempted to

contact the airplane but the pilot did not respond.


As noted above, immediately after the Teterboro tower controller instructed the airplane to contact Newark tower on frequency 127.85, the Newark controller called the Teterboro controller to request that they turn the airplane to a heading of 220 degrees (southwest) and transfer communications on the aircraft. As the Newark controller was providing the suggested heading to the Teterboro controller, the pilot of the airplane was acknowledging the frequency change to the Teterboro controller.

The Teterboro controller made two unsuccessful attempts to reach the pilot, with the second attempt occurring at 1152:50. At 1152:54, 20 seconds prior to the collision, the radar data

processing system detected a conflict between the airplane and the helicopter, which set off aural alarms and a caused a “conflict alert” indication to appear on the radar displays at both Teterboro and Newark towers.

During interviews both controllers stated that they did not recall seeing or hearing the conflict alert. At 1153:19, five seconds after the collision, the Teterboro controller contacted the Newark controller to ask about the airplane, and was told that the pilot had not called. There were no further air traffic control contacts with either aircraft.

The National Transportation Safety Board cautions against drawing any conclusions, but it would appear likely that the crash, which had caused politicians and others to call for more restrictions on the airspace above New York, is instead going to lead to questions about the ability of air traffic controllers to police that for which they already hold some responsibility.

Earlier, the union for controllers called suggestions they had anything to do with the crash “absurd and insulting.”

Ironically, the situation comes hours after the federal government and the union reached an agreement on a new contract for the controllers after contentious negotiations.

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