NTSB seeks cause of mid-air collision between plane and tour helicopter over Hudson River

By Joan Lowy, AP
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Safety board seeks cause of mid-air collision

WASHINGTON — A yearlong probe of a mid-air collision between a small plane and a tour helicopter over the Hudson River that claimed nine lives is culminating with a federal safety panel meeting to decide the cause of the accident.

The National Transportation Safety Board already has released much of the evidence gathered during its investigation. But investigators have not provided their conclusions on the direct cause of the collision and what other factors, if any, contributed to the tragedy. They plan to make that material public Tuesday.

All three people in the plane, the helicopter’s pilot and five tourists from Italy were killed in the Aug. 8, 2009, collision. Thousands of people enjoying the weekend afternoon along the river’s New Jersey shore were sent scampering for cover from falling debris.

In response to the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration divided the airspace along the busy flight corridor where the collision took place to put more room between planes passing through the area and helicopters, seaplanes and sightseeing aircraft that fly at lower altitudes.

FAA transcripts of air traffic control communications show the plane’s pilot — Steven Altman, 60, — was cleared for takeoff by a controller at Teterboro, New Jersey. Altman’s intention was to fly the Piper aircraft south along New Jersey’s beaches. Two other family members — Daniel Altman, 49, and his 16-year-old son, Douglas — were passengers.

The plane was climbing through the air corridor while turning to follow the coastline when it collided with the helicopter, which had just begun to rise from the New York side of the river for a 12-minute tour. The collision, captured on security video and in photos, appears to show the helicopter clipping the plane’s wing before both aircraft break apart.

The five tourists were from the Bologna, Italy, area: Michele Norelli, 51; his son Filippo Norelli, 16; Fabio Gallazzi, 49; his wife, Tiziana Pedroni, 44; and their son Giacomo Gallazzi, 15. The helicopter pilot was Jeremy Clarke, 32.

Among questions expected to be answered by investigators at the meeting is whether the air traffic controller who cleared Altman for takeoff could have prevented the accident if he had been paying closer attention. Transcripts show that after clearing Altman’s plane the controller made a personal phone call to joke with a friend about a dead cat. The controller remained on the phone while directing air traffic, disconnecting after the accident.

Mary Schiavo, an attorney representing the families of the Italian tourists, said her clients also want the NTSB to recommend that aircraft entering the Hudson corridor be actively under the direction of air traffic controllers.

Aircraft flying below 1,300 feet (400 meters) in the corridor are not required to be under the direction of air traffic controllers despite FAA’s rules aimed at providing more room.



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