The National Transportation Safety Board has removed the National Air Traffic Controllers Association as a party to its investigation into the Aug. 8 midair collision of two aircraft over the Hudson River that killed nine people.
Under the NTSB’s procedures, organizations and agencies are invited to participate in investigations if they can provide technical expertise. However, those organizations sign an agreement to not reveal investigative information or publicly comment on it.
On Aug. 14, NATCA convened a press conference to discuss information released earlier that day by the NTSB.
It was “subsequently reminded of its responsibilities as a party to the investigation,” according to NTSB officials. On Aug. 17, NATCA issued another press release in the morning and conducted another press conference in the afternoon, NTSB officials said. Patrick Forrey, NATCA president, was informed that same day that his organization has been removed as a party to the investigation, NTSB officials added.
At issue are “conflicting interpretations of factual information” released Aug. 17 by the NTSB about the role of the controllers in the accident, according to NTSB officials.
According to preliminary data provided by the FAA, the Teterboro controller cleared the accident airplane for departure at 11:48:30. The first radar target for the airplane was detected at 11:49:55, at about 300 feet. The controller initiated a non-business-related telephone conversation at 11:50:31.
Prior to the Teterboro controller instructing the pilot to contact Newark Tower at 11:52:20, there were several aircraft in the vicinity of the airplane, some of which were potential traffic conflicts. These were detected by radar and displayed on the controller’s scope in Teterboro tower. The Teterboro controller did not alert the airplane pilot to this traffic prior to instructing him to change his radio frequency and contact Newark. The accident helicopter was not visible onthe Teterboro controller’s radar scope at 11:52:20; it did appear on radar 7 seconds later — at approximately 400 feet.
At 11:52:54, 20 seconds prior to the collision, the radar data processing system detected a conflict between the airplane and the helicopter, which set off alarms and caused a “conflict alert” indication to appear on the radar displays at both Teterboro and Newark towers. The controller ended his telephone call at 11:53:13. The collision occurred at 11:53:14.
The NTSB stated in a media release Aug. 14 that the role that air traffic control might have played in this accident will be determined by the NTSB as the investigation progresses. “The board is waiting for more detailed air traffic control-related data from the FAA,” officials said Aug. 17. “Any opinions rendered at this time are speculative and premature.”
“Although we appreciate the technical expertise our parties provide during the course of an investigation,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. 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. I regret that we have had to remove NATCA from the investigation.”
For its part, NATCA “strongly disputes misleading and – in one passage – outright false parts of the NTSB Hudson River mid-air crash press release that mistakenly and unfairly assign responsibilities to a Teterboro, N.J., controller during the pre-crash sequence of events that simply did not exist,” according to its Aug. 14 press release.
“At issue are four words in the NTSB press release that wrongly infer that the Teterboro controller could have warned the pilot of the Piper aircraft about the helicopter over the Hudson River that the aircraft eventually hit,” NATCA’s press release states. NATCA officials note that the NTSB press release “infers that at the time the Teterboro controller told the aircraft to switch his frequency to talk to Newark Tower controllers, there were several aircraft detected by radar in the area immediately ahead of the airplane, ‘including the accident helicopter.’ NATCA emphatically declares that these four words are absolutely false and have contributed to the reckless and mistaken conclusion that the Teterboro controller could have prevented this crash.”
“We believe the NTSB is wrong to infer there was a traffic advisory that could have been issued from Teterboro Tower to the aircraft,” said Ray Adams, NATCA facility representative at Newark Tower who is representing the Teterboro Tower controller in the NTSB crash investigation. “The helicopter was not depicted on the radar prior to the switch of control from Teterboro to Newark Tower. Teterboro had no opportunity to call that traffic. The service of air traffic control is based on ‘known and observed’ traffic. The Teterboro controller had neither seen nor known about the accident helicopter at the transfer of communication to Newark.
“Also, let’s remember that the aircraft never made radio contact with Newark, as Teterboro had requested,” he continued. “Nobody was talking to him. You cannot issue traffic warnings to a pilot who is not communicating with you. You have to reach the pilot first and the Teterboro controller – as is accurately made clear in the NTSB press release– tried twice, to no avail.”
Added NATCA President Forrey: “Let me make this as clear as I can: our air traffic controller at Teterboro did his job. We believe he is not responsible for contributing to this tragic accident and there is nothing he could have done to prevent it from happening. We respect the NTSB and we value our participation in NTSB investigations. But in this case, the NTSB has completely ignored our input, painted an unrealistic view of the job description of a Teterboro controller and fueled a public feeding frenzy that unfairly blames this particular Teterboro controller for not acting to stop the sequence of events that led to the crash.