WASHINGTON — An air traffic controller making a personal phone call initially failed to warn a small plane of other aircraft in its path and then tried unsuccessfully to contact the pilot, federal safety officials said Friday. Moments later, the plane collided with an tour helicopter over the Hudson River, killing nine people.
The controller and the supervisor on duty at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey at the time of last Saturday's accident have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in a report that the controller — who has not been identified — cleared the single-engine Piper for takeoff at 11:48 a.m. EDT, and then made a personal call. He remained on the phone, including while further instructing the plane's pilot, until the accident occurred.
After takeoff, the plane flew southbound until the controller directed it to turn left toward the river, the report said. At 11:52 a.m. the controller instructed the plane to contact air traffic control at nearby Newark Liberty International Airport, which monitors low-flying traffic over the river, but doesn't attempt to separate aircraft.
The pilot apparently did not contact Newark, the report said.
Radar data show there were several aircraft immediately ahead of the plane, including the tour helicopter, "all of which were potential traffic conflicts for the airplane," but the controller didn't warn the pilot, the report said.
It wasn't until controllers at the nearby Newark airport alerted the Teterboro controller to the potential collision that he tried unsuccessfully to contact the pilot, the report said. The collision occurred shortly after that.
FAA said in a statement released late Thursday there is no reason to believe that the controller's actions contributed to the accident. However, the agency said the phone conversation was inappropriate and such conduct is unacceptable.
The supervisor's conduct also is being investigated because he was out of the building at the time. Controllers, including supervisors, are expected to be available throughout their work shift in case they are needed, even if they are taking a break.
The NTSB report said two other Teterboro controllers were taking a break at the time of the accident. The only controllers in the tower were the controller who was talking on the phone and another controller who was handling arriving planes and traffic on the ground.