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Pilot errors, distracted controller contributed to 2009 New York air collision

Those factors were the likely causes of the collision between a plane and a tourist helicopter that killed nine people, the NTSB says. The FAA reportedly takes action against the controller.

September 14, 2010|By Jordan Steffen, Tribune Washington Bureau
  • Wreckage of the tour helicopter that collided with a small plane is retrieved from the Hudson River. The helicopter was carrying five Italian tourists.
Wreckage of the tour helicopter that collided with a small plane is retrieved… (Seth Wenig / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — Errors by two pilots and a distracted air traffic controller were the likely causes of the midair collision between a small private plane and a tourist helicopter that killed nine people in August 2009, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.

The board cited inherent limitations on both pilots' ability to see and avoid each other until seconds before colliding. It also determined that an air traffic controller at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey failed to provide a timely transfer of information and air traffic advisories for pilots in the cramped Hudson River airspace. While directing traffic, the controller also was conducting a personal telephone conversation about a dead cat at the airport.

"A lot of people made a lot of little errors, and at the end of the day that's what culminated in this accident," NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said at the meeting.

The plane, with two passengers plus the pilot aboard, collided with the helicopter carrying a pilot and five Italian tourists. All were killed.

Both pilots failed to use onboard equipment to help stay aware of other aircraft, the NTSB said. Other factors contributing to the crash, the NTSB said, were inadequate Federal Aviation Administration rules on the vertical distance that aircraft are required to maintain between each other and inadequate procedures for flying in the busy New York-New Jersey corridor.

In the last 25 years, midair collisions have killed 700 people and, Hersman said, distraction is one of the most dangerous contributors.

"There are a number of protocols and procedures created to prevent aircraft from being in the same airspace," Hersman said. "What our concern is about is on occasion when people slip."

The board recommended altering boundaries of the busy corridor, requiring operational altitudes for local aircraft and others leaving the area, and declaring airspace used for scenic tours as high traffic. The NTSB also strongly recommended more electronic advisory systems in helicopter cockpits.

The FAA will review the recommendations. The agency took action against the controller and two other employees Tuesday, the Associated Press reported.

Mary Schiavo, the attorney representing families of the five Italian tourists, said they were pleased with Tuesday's outcome. Schiavo said she still hoped to see more recommendations and regulations for improving advisory technology in cockpits.

Without the technology, she said, "general aviation aircraft will be flying blind."

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