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NATCA ousted from Hudson investigation for breaching protocol

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has removed the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) as a party to its investigation of the 8 August mid-air collision between an air taxi sightseeing helicopter and a general aviation aircraft in a visual flight rules corridor over the Hudson River near New York City. All six onboard the Eurocopter AS350 helicopter and three on the single engine Piper aircraft were killed.

“At the outset of the investigation, the organizations sign an agreement to abide by NTSB party rules,” says the NTSB in a press release issued this evening. “Among the rules parties agree to is that they will not reveal investigative information being learned through that process, nor publicly comment on it.”

According to the Board, Natca on two occasions has revealed investigative details in press conferences. From Natca's perspective, its press conferences were held to clear of the controller of false accusations over his handling of the Piper aircraft after its departure.

Natca says the issue revolves around “four words” in an NTSB press release that “wrongly infer” that the Teterboro controller could have warned the pilot of the Piper of the impending collision.

“The press release infers that at the time the Teterboro controller told the aircraft to switch his frequency to talk to Newark Tower controllers, there were several aircraft detected by radar in the area immediately ahead of the airplane, ‘including the accident helicopter (the four words in question).’”

“NATCA emphatically declares that these four words are absolutely false and have contributed to the reckless and mistaken conclusion that the Teterboro controller could have prevented this crash,” the union notes.

In an effort to clear up what it says is “conflicting interpretations” of factual information, the NTSB this afternoon provided updated information on the controller’s action, based on preliminary data provided by the FAA.

11:48:30 (local time) - The controller clears Piper for departure
11:49:55 – First radar target of Piper
11:50:31 – Controller initiates “non-business-related” phone call
11:52:20 – Controller instructs pilot to contact Newark Tower. NTSB notes that several aircraft are in the vicinity, some of which were potential traffic conflicts, were detected on the Teterboro controller’s radar screen. “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 Board states.
11:52:27 – Accident helicopter shows up on Teterboro controller’s radar
11:52:52 – Radar data processing system detects conflict and alarms at Teterboro and Newark towers
11:53:13 – Controller terminates non-business-related call
11:53:14 – Collision occurs

"Although we appreciate the technical expertise our parties provide during the course of an investigation," says NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman, "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."

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