Sep 14, 2010 3:57 PM by Melissa Canone
WASHINGTON (AP) - Errors by an air traffic controller distracted
by a personal phone call set the stage for a midair collision last
year over the Hudson River between a tour helicopter and a small
plane that claimed nine lives, a federal safety panel said Tuesday.
While the National Transportation Safety Board placed a large
share of the blame for the Aug. 8, 2009, accident on the
controller, it also faulted Federal Aviation Administration rules
in the busy air corridor over the Hudson between New York and New
Jersey that rely on pilots to "see and avoid" other aircraft
rather than be actively separated by air traffic controllers.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman expressed concern that midair
collisions are still occurring more than 50 years after the
collision of two airliners over the Grand Canyon prompted reforms
that led to the creation of the FAA and the nation's air traffic
Midair collisions involving airliners are rare today thanks
largely to onboard cockpit warning systems. But there have been 59
collisions involving helicopters and small planes, which are
equipped with the same warning systems as airliners, in the U.S.
since 2005, board members noted.
Both aircraft involved in last year's accident were equipped
with a different kind of technology - traffic monitoring systems -
that provide indications of the impeding collision, investigators
told the board. But those indications, which can be so frequent
that investigators said pilots often tune them out, were ignored or
Hersman said the collision was due to "a merger of missteps"
than began with the controller who cleared Steven Altman's Piper
Lance for takeoff. Altman, 60, of Ambler, Pa., requested that the
controller continue to advise him of potential traffic conflicts
But the controller, engaged in a bantering personal phone call
about a dead cat while directing traffic, was distracted and
violated several procedures, investigators said. He waited more
than two minutes to give Altman a new radio frequency after he
handed off the plane to controllers at nearby Newark Liberty
International Airport. When the controller did relay the frequency
to Altman, he spoke very rapidly, making his words difficult to
understand, investigators said.
Altman read back the frequency to the controller incorrectly as
127.8 instead of 127.85. Controllers are supposed to listen to a
pilot's readback of a frequency and correct it if it's wrong.
However, the controller received a radio call from Newark
controllers at the same moment, as well as being distracted by the
personal phone call and other traffic he was handling. He didn't
correct - and probably didn't hear - the incorrect readback,
As a result, Altman was probably tuned to the wrong radio
frequency and couldn't be reached by controllers when they tried to
warn him of the impending collision, investigators said.
Also killed in the accident was the helicopter's pilot, Jeremy
Clarke, 32, of Lanoka Harbor, N.J., who apparently couldn't see
Altman's plane, investigators said. Clarke would have had to look
behind his right shoulder to see it coming.
The helicopter was visible from the window of Altman's plane.
But a presentation by investigators demonstrated that it would have
been difficult for Altman to discern the helicopter against the
background of the New York skyline until a few seconds before the
Altman and his two passengers - his brother, Daniel Altman, 49,
of Dresher, Pa., and his 16-year-old son, Douglas - were killed in
the collision. Also killed were Clark and five tourists from the
Bologna area of Italy: Michele Norelli, 51; his son Filippo
Norelli, 16; Fabio Gallazzi, 49; his wife, Tiziana Pedroni, 44; and
their son Giacomo Gallazzi, 15.