WASHINGTON — Errors by an air traffic controller distracted by a personal phone call set the stage for a midair collision last year over the Hudson River between a helicopter and a plane that claimed nine lives, a federal safety panel said yesterday.
Although the National Transportation Safety Board placed a large share of the blame for the Aug. 8, 2009, accident on the controller, it also faulted Federal Aviation Administration rules in the busy air corridor over the Hudson between New York and New Jersey, which rely on pilots to “see and avoid’’ other aircraft rather than be actively separated by air traffic controllers.
NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman expressed concern that midair collisions are still occurring more than 50 years after the collision of two airliners over the Grand Canyon prompted reforms that led to the creation of the FAA and the nation’s air traffic control system.
Midair collisions involving airliners are rare today, thanks largely to onboard cockpit warning systems. But there have been 59 collisions involving helicopters and small planes, which are not equipped with the same warning systems as airliners, in the United States since 2005, board members noted.
Both aircraft involved in last year’s accident were equipped with a different kind of technology that provides indications of an impending collision. But those indications, which can be so frequent that pilots often tune them out, were ignored or went unobserved.
Hersman said the collision was due to “a merger of missteps’’ that began with the controller who cleared Steven Altman’s Piper Lance for takeoff.