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NTSB, Union Still at Odds Over Hudson River Crash

By Ed O'Keefe


An exclusive Fox News image of the mid-air collision between a small plane and tourist helicopter over New York's Hudson River on Aug. 8. (Photo courtesy of Fox News)

Updated Sept. 1 6:16 p.m. ET

The National Transportation Safety Board and the union representing the nation’s air traffic controllers remain at odds over details of last month’s deadly collision of a small plane and a helicopter over New York’s Hudson River. In contention are agency recommendations, issued before the completion of the NTSB’s investigation and statements, that appear to point a finger at the performance of the air traffic controller who cleared the plane for takeoff.

Observers call the public dispute between the NTSB and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association unique because the NTSB seldom removes unions or other groups from investigations. The NTSB excluded the 19,000-member union after NATCA aired its complaints.

Nine people died when a single-engine plane collided with a tourist helicopter near the New Jersey side of the Hudson River on Aug. 8. The plane had taken off moments before from Teterboro Airport in North Jersey, a spot popular with private jets and smaller aircraft.

Late last week, the NTSB issued five safety recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, urging, among other things, more attentiveness from air traffic controllers. The NTSB expressed concern that the Teterboro “controller was not fully engaged in his duties.”

NATCA blasted the recommendations, saying the NTSB had rushed to release its preliminary findings ahead of an FAA report, expected Wednesday.

“The only answer is that we’re an independent agency,” NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said. “We will release information and recommendations whenever we feel is appropriate for our investigation.”

“They do issue recommendations, but they don’t start naming causal factors before they complete their investigation and put out a report,” NATCA President Patrick Forrey said.

The FAA announced on Aug. 13 that the air traffic controller at Teterboro had made a personal telephone call in the moments before the collision, but said the call was not a factor in the crash. The next day the NTSB confirmed the phone call, but did not rule it out as a factor. The NTSB said the controller had failed to warn the plane of nearby traffic, which included the helicopter.

The union disputed the NTSB’s statements about the location of the helicopter and privately asked officials for a correction, according to union spokesman Doug Church. NATCA also argued that the NTSB had unfairly assigned blame to the air traffic controller before the conclusion of its investigation. The union went public with its concerns on Aug. 17, after the agency failed to correct its statement, Church said.

“We could allow the public and everyone else to wrongly accuse our controller, or we could speak out and make it clear that he could not have stopped it,” he said.

The NTSB corrected its original statement about the helicopter that same day, but also removed NATCA as a party to the crash investigation. The union had violated its agreement with the NTSB that it not publicly discuss the investigation before a final report, Holloway said.

Removing a union from a probe is rare, former NTSB chairman Jim Hall said.

“We had some problems, but they were usually worked out without any public give-and-take, like you’re seeing here,” he said.

Hall defended the NTSB’s decision. “If there’s something that comes to their attention that needs to be dealt with right away that they feel is a safety risk, it’s very standard for them to issue recommendations,” he said.

The union should avoid defending an air traffic controller that was making a personal phone call while on duty, said Bob Gilson, a former NTSB labor relations official.

“They lose credibility with the American people when they do that,” he said.

Forrey called the controller’s phone call inappropriate and acknowledged that other controllers have placed similar calls while on duty. “But the fact of the matter is, you’re going to be distracted here and there once in a while. This has no factor with this incident. It had no bearing on this whatsoever.”

NATCA said it has always treated its access to investigations with seriousness, and it plans to work with the NTSB and the FAA to review the findings of the investigation despite the disagreements.

Editor's Note: This report has been updated from its original version.

By Ed O'Keefe  | September 1, 2009; 6:20 PM ET
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Comments

So the union had violated its agreement with NTSB that it not publicly discuss the investigation before a final report, but the NTSB is free to start assigning blame before its final report? Nice rules...

Posted by: ed7038 | September 1, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

This accident was caused by see and avoid VFR flying. Unfortunately when a helicopter is rising and a fixed wing aircraft is proceeding along the route, it is very hard to see under the aircraft. These flights should have and probably will be under air traffic controller flight following in the future.

Posted by: jcrisa | September 1, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Basic rules still apply. See and be seen....Pretty soon they will expect the controllers to input the information in their flight directors. I like the fact that no one on the NTSB has experience as either an air traffic controller or flying in the exclusion (Hudson river area)(by the way I do both) If the controller had issued a turn they would of found him at fault because he is not considered nor is he rated as a radar controller. VFR tower controllers have little if any radar training. Teterboro is a VFR tower. The controller was done with his job with this airplane no matter what the NTSB thinks. By regulation the airplane was in uncontrolled air space. If they want controllers to work traffic in the exclusion they need to change some rules. They also need to staff those positions....But Teterboro is a class D just read the Aim basically the only garenteed seperation is at the runway for VFR aircraft. Anything else is more then is required, and more then the facilities are staffed to do. Don't blame the controller for not doing more then is required, if you want more change the rules and the staffing.

Posted by: bundies | September 1, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

I became a licensed pilot in 1966 and have progressed through the years to the point of instructing and flying turbine engine aircraft commercially, and it seems to me that the NTSB is forgetting that these aircraft were flying in uncontrolled airspace and therefore were responsible for see-and-avoid. I have not seen whether or not either pilot had asked for "flight following", but even if they had, that is only provided as available from ATC. Should the controller have been on a personal call while on duty? Probably not, depending on the policies and procedures in effect at his location, but that does not mean he was responsible for the accident in any way. Likewise, the supervisor was not responsible for the accident, although it does seem he violated the procedures by not being in the building during his watch. The NTSB, to me, is connecting actions and activities that do not necessarily connect and therefore are guilty of grasping in an effort to appear effective. One last comment, and I agree with another respondent on this -- it seems as if the rules that apply to the union should also apply to the NTSB, or at least not be changed in the middle of an investigation.

Posted by: cbrpriv | September 1, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Clearly neither pilot was being as diligent as the situation required. Pilots are responsible for see-and-avoid separation in a VFR environment, and a low altitude, narrow, high-traffic corridor like the Hudson River requires the highest level of awareness. ATC can, and should, provide support when possible, but it’s not their primary responsibility, and not something they can provide in real-time while pilots are maneuvering VFR. Yes, it was a horrible and unfortunately avoidable accident (like most), but I don’t understand what is in question here?

Posted by: dswilliams | September 1, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with bundies... the Control Tower operator did not have the authority to tell the Piper pilot to do ANYTHING, nor did he have the responsibility outside his airspace (if I read the AIM and .65 correctly).
It was bad, but two mid-airs in 46 years with an estimated 120,000 operations per year-- it appears to me that it's just pure good luck that there are not more.
I heard a story that there were 16 people killed in vehicle crashes withing 50 miles of this event on that day... don't know if it's true, but worth noting that there is no demand to stop car traffic.

Posted by: oldpilot | September 1, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

i have flown many times into teterboro and found the controllers to be very good considering the amount of traffic and their location. am i missing something... VFR flight and the controller is responsible...NTSB get serious....
blame the pilots as not seeing each other.

stuff happens move on affix blame as an accident.

Posted by: ggl123 | September 1, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

AS A PILOT I WOULD ASK FOR FLIGHT FOLLOWING WHICH THE FIXED WING MAY HAVE.
IT IS NOT UNCOMMON FOR TOWER TO GIVE A HEADING AND THEN GIVE YOU FOLLOWING UNTIL YOU ARE CLEAR OF THE AIRSPACE. IT WAS REMARKED THAT THE TOWER ATTEMPTED TO CONTACT CONTACT FIXED WING AIRCRAFT.. THAT ALL OF A SUDDEN GOT QUITE.
IF A EMPLOYEE OF OURS WAS ON THE PHONE DURING WORK HOURS HE WOOULD NEED TO FIND ANOTHER JOB.I AND OTHER PILOTS DON'T PAY THE CONTROLLER TO TALK TO TO HIS GIRL FRIEND. IF THERE WAS NO HAZZARD WE WOULD NOT NEED CONTROLLERS THAT WHY THE FAA HAS CONTROL TOWERS. HOW CAN YOU HAVE AN ILS AND NO RADAR?

Posted by: jim64 | September 1, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Talking to a controller when flying VFR in uncontrolled airspace is a waste of time to both controller and Pilot.

The NTSB is trying to BS the public with this blame game. Helicopter and fixed wing do not mix. This type of accident will happen. Possibly this should be controlled airspace with all aircraft entering and proceeding in pattern then exiting. Helicopters should be no more than 400 feet AGL fixed wing no lower than 1000' AGL. Leave the controller out of this. y the time a pilot receives traffic warning from ATC it is too late. The lag folks!

Posted by: realist19 | September 1, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

I am really surprised at all the posting beforehand.

First, the NATCA Union had a decision to make when the NTSB extended them an invitation to be part of the investigation.
Either abide by the rules or not. NATCA tried to have its cake and eat it too. Either be part of the investigation and let only the NTSB speak about the accident or don't be part of the investigation. As anyone who has been part of an investigation consensus is important and NATCA simply violated the rules it said it would abide by.

Second the NTSB never said the Controller caused the accident. From what I read, it said the Teterboro controller made a phone call after passing off the airplane to Newark and before the airplane had been able to contact Newark and that the necessity of this phone call was questionable.

Finally, as a private pilot I would never want to fly up or down the Hudson (as I have done over 2 dozen times) without being on the Hudson River frequency. The airplane pilot apparently had the choice of doing this. I myself would never do this and I think it should be mandated that this should never be done. In this space, it is better to be able to hear and say what your position is. Waiting on radar to be read from some distant tower is highly inefficient and as we see deadly.

To close, as a private pilot whose father was a pilot and whose grandfather was a pilot and controller, I want good relations between pilots and controllers.

It is said if you but two good people in a bad environment it is assured they will be at each other's throats.

I am pround of air system, but we sometimes as a family, must admit our mutual mistakes and improve the environment. Let's correct them together and move on.

Kind regards to controllers and pilots alike.

Posted by: rkfairchild | September 1, 2009 4:33 PM | Report abuse

Very well put Mr. RK Fairchaid. Very well put indeed.

Posted by: realist19 | September 1, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

It is surprising that the controllers union does not remain silent rather than attempt to defend the behavior of this controller and his/her supervisor on that fateful day. It is indisputable that dividing one's attention impairs performance on any complex task, which is why personal phone calls and air traffic control do not mix. In congested airspace, it is certainly not unusual for "conflicting" traffic to pop up on radar at any time, and any controller must be ready and able to act immediately when - not if - that occurs. Nevertheless, the anachronistic U.S. air traffic control system is the root problem, largely because it misleads both controllers and pilots into believing that pilots can safely navigate according to the ancient maritime principle of "see-and-avoid," which may have been acceptable for aircraft in the early days of aviation, but isn't in the modern age of fast aircraft, some flying vertically, in ever more congested airspace. Currently, there are about 12 midair collisions per year in the U.S. (involving 24 aircraft), and although pilots almost invariably get the blame for them, the real causal problem is systemic: there are physical and behavioral limitations of the see-and-avoid concept that prevent pilots from reliably seeing other aircraft in time to avoid them. I reached this conclusion first from experience as an instrument-rated pilot with over 1000 hours and then as a researcher who scientifically studied midair collisions and reported the findings at several conferences and in a peer-reviewed journal (see http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/asma/asem/2005/00000076/00000004/art00007;jsessionid=7rqc7uc2nqv22.alice). Unless the NTSB addresses the real root systemic cause of midair collisions across the entire national airspace, rather than merely its latest symptoms in the Hudson river corridor, these often tragic collisions will continue taking good people's lives and undermining general aviation. These views are my own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of any federal agency.

Posted by: ccraigmorris | September 1, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

I concur with my ccraigmorris and quite honestly am somewhat flabbergasted that this isn't a self-evident observation.

There is risk in all we do and as a driver, I have to worry about 360 degrees and honestly can't always handle that. As a pilot the degrees of observation are three times that and it is guaranteed we will not in any way be able to see a large portion of that, especially in a congested area.

So while we can defintely improve people's performance and attentiveness and we can definitely improve proceedures, there will remain a certain portion of risk that must be mitigated by technology.

How about we slap a nRFID (Radio Frequency Identification Tag) on every aircraft and an RFID reader on every aircraft and help the see and avoid limitations? Anybody want to work with me on this?


Posted by: rkfairchild | September 1, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

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