Union Removed As Participant In Midair Collision Investigation

If you want to play, best argue with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) privately, not publicly and probably prematurely. On 17 August the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) was stripped of its party status in the NTSB’s investigation into the mid-air collision 8 August over the Hudson River, in which all nine aboard the air tours helicopter and the Piper private plane were killed.

According to the NTSB, a Teterboro air traffic controller engaged in a “non-business related telephone conversation” shortly before the collision and did not alert the Piper pilot to the presence of air traffic in the vicinity. Only when the two aircraft were on a collision course and a “conflict alert” appeared on the controller’s radar display did he suspend his phone call, at 11:53:13. The collision occurred at 11:53:14, the NTSB says.

NATCA held a press conference to discuss this information, not once, but twice. The first time on 14 August, and also on 17 August, accusing the NTSB of “mistakenly and unfairly” criticizing the controller.

NATCA was in high dudgeon. “We believe the NTSB is wrong to infer there was a traffic advisory that could have been issued from the Teterboro Tower to the aircraft,” declared 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.”

Note, nary a word about the controller engaged in a non-pertinent phone conversation moments before the collision.

NATCA said 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 being able to stop the sequence of events that led to the crash.”

Strong words, contained in a NATCA press release.

If NATCA were not a party to the NTSB investigation, it could engage in whatever fire-breathing rhetoric it chooses. But that’s not the case; NATCA was a designated party to the investigation, for the purpose of providing technical assistance to the NTSB. That technical assistance includes interpreting what was on the controller’s radar scope, what his duties were, the functioning of the “conflict alert” and communicating with the aircraft, among other things. The role of a party is not to engage in a public food fight with the NTSB, spattering accusatory egg all over the NTSB while ignoring inconvenient factors.

In voiding NATCA’s privileged part status, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said:

“Although we appreciate the technical expertise our parties provide during the course of an investigation, 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.”

Just for the record, here is what the NTSB originally released, in part:

“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 Hudson River Class B Exclusion Area 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 the 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 on the Teterboro controller’s radar scope at 11:52:20; it did appear on radar 7 seconds later – at approximately 400 feet.”

Whether the controller did his job, or was distracted, or lacked initiative, is not the issue at hand. The issue is that NATCA, as a party to the investigation (and therefore a privileged member of the investigative team) chose to go public with its distinctly accusatory interpretation, and at a very early stage in the investigative process.

As the new chairman of the NTSB, Hersman doubtless felt that she was being tested, even if that was not NATCA’s direct intent. The sanctity of the investigative process was being corrupted by NATCA’s off-the-reservation attacks, at the very least.

Her action frankly sends a much-needed message. Over the years, it has been evident that parties to NTSB investigations often had their own agendas, which took the form of distracting or obfuscating the inquiry into their member’s role in an accident. Hersman’s pull-the-plug action against NATCA sent a message to the aviation community at large: if you’re going to be a party, don’t play the public role of aggrieved ankle biter.