WASHINGTON - Federal safety officials investigating a midair collision over the Hudson River changed their account of the accident on a key point yesterday, saying an air tour helicopter struck by a small plane wasn’t initially visible on radar to an air traffic controller handling the plane.
The National Transportation Safety Board had previously said the controller failed to warn the plane’s pilot of the potential for a collision with several aircraft in its path, including the helicopter, before handing off responsibility for the plane to another airport.
Nine people - three aboard the plane, and five Italian tourists and a pilot aboard the helicopter - were killed in the Aug. 8 accident in an area of busy air traffic over the river between New York and New Jersey.
The board now says in a statement released yesterday that while the controller at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey failed to warn of several aircraft in the path of the single-engine Piper, the tour helicopter wasn’t one of the aircraft on the controller’s radar screen until seven seconds after the handoff to nearby Newark Liberty International Airport.
Officials for the National Air Traffic Controllers Union, which represents the controller, said the board’s report released Friday, which described the handling of the plane by controllers, unfairly implied that the Teterboro controller could have prevented the collision. They had been pressing the board for a correction since then through media conferences Friday night and yesterday afternoon, and in conversations with NTSB staff over the weekend.
In response, the board removed the union from its investigation of the crash. NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said in the board’s statement, released shortly after the union’s second news conference, that parties to investigations sign an agreement not to publicly discuss the information gathered by the board while the investigation is ongoing.
The public spat between the board and the union and FAA is unusual. Typically, the union and FAA avoid any public statements regarding an ongoing investigation so as not to jeopardize their status as parties, which gives them access to information uncovered by the NTSB long before it becomes public.