NTSB: Hudson River collision highlights broader controller problems

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US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials say they are preparing a specific set of recommendations that will address problematic "trends" they're seeing across the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) related to air traffic controllers having a dual role of working traffic while also being tasked with supervision duties.

The revelation was made during a 14 September final hearing on the 9 August 2009 midair collision between a Piper single-engine aircraft and sightseeing helicopter over the Hudson River near Hoboken, New Jersey. All nine occupants on both aircraft were killed, including five Italian tourists on the helicopter.

Along with long established limitations in "see-and-avoid" practices relied upon for separation of GA aircraft, the NTSB also faulted an air traffic controller for having a "non-pertinent" phone call during the portion of flight where the Piper's pilot was expecting to receive air traffic advisories. The NTSB made five initial recommendations to the FAA, including changes to frequencies that pilots use to self-announce their routes and modifications to helicopter electronic traffic avoidance systems.

The additional controller-related recommendations will be issued to deal with what the NSTB says are systemic problems related to controller and supervisor job functions.

In the Hudson River collision, a front line manager was in the tower when the accident controller had earlier made a non-pertinent call, but the supervisor "did not address the issue as required", says the NTSB.

At the time of the accident, the tower was adequately staffed with two controllers, however their front line manager and the controller-in-charge were on break and could not be immediately reached after the accident occurred. The NTSB says the accident controller was not relieved from his position until approximately 20 minutes after the collision.