NTSB chair: ‘Merger of missteps’ led to midair collision between plane and tour helicopter

By Joan Lowy, AP
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Merger of missteps led to midair collision

WASHINGTON — A midair collision last year over the Hudson River between a tour helicopter and a small plane that claimed nine lives was the result of a series of missteps that began minutes before the accident, investigators told a federal safety board said Tuesday.

An air traffic controller, engaged in a bantering personal phone call while directing traffic, was distracted and violated several procedures, investigators said. As a result, the pilot of the small plane was likely using the wrong radio frequency, preventing controllers from reaching him moments later to warn of the impeding crash with the helicopter, they said.

The Teterboro Airport controller, who cleared the plane for takeoff, waited more than two minutes to give the pilot a new radio frequency when he handed off the plane to controllers at nearby Newark Liberty International Airport. When the controller did relay the frequency to the pilot, he spoke very rapidly, making his words difficult to understand, investigators said.

The pilot — Steven Altman, 60, of Ambler, Pa. — 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 was busy handling other traffic and, distracted by the personal phone call, probably didn’t hear the incorrect readback. He also received a radio call from Newark controllers at the same moment.

The National Transportation Safety Board was meeting to determine the cause of the accident and make safety recommendations.

The accident also underscores weaknesses in cockpit technology designed to prevent such collisions, the board was told. The pilots of both aircraft apparently overlooked alerts from traffic advisory systems in their cockpits moments before the accident.

The crash occurred in a busy air corridor over the river where pilots are supposed to use “see and avoid” procedures to prevent collisions. Aircraft in the corridor aren’t actively separated by air traffic controllers.

However, the helicopter’s pilot — Jeremy Clarke, 32, of Lanoka Harbor, N.J. — apparently couldn’t see the plane, investigators said. Clarke would have had to look behind his right shoulder to see it coming.

The helicopter was visible out the window of the plane, a Piper Lance. 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 the last few seconds before the accident.

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.



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