Controller was bantering about cat before crash

Associated Press / August 17, 2009

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WASHINGTON - The air traffic controller handling the small plane involved in a deadly crash with a helicopter over the Hudson River was chatting on the telephone about a dead cat at the airport and initially failed to warn the pilot of other aircraft in his path, officials say.

The controller tried unsuccessfully to contact the pilot before the accident, officials said Friday, but the plane collided with a tour helicopter over the Hudson River, killing nine people.

The controller handling the plane and his supervisor at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey at the time of the accident a week ago 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 and 30 seconds a.m., then made a call. He remained on the phone, including while further instructing the plane’s pilot, until the accident happened.

The call, to an airport contractor, was a “silly conversation’’ concerning a dead cat that had been removed from the airport, a retired union official said in an account supported by transportation officials also familiar with the contents of the call.

After takeoff, the plane flew southbound until the controller directed it to turn left toward the river, the report said. At 11:52 and 20 seconds, the controller instructed the plane to contact air traffic control at Newark Liberty International Airport.

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 Teterboro controller didn’t warn the pilot, the report said.

It wasn’t until Newark controllers alerted the Teterboro controller to the potential collision that he twice tried unsuccessfully to contact the pilot, the report said. The collision occurred at 11:53 and 14 seconds.

The FAA has said there is no reason to believe the controller’s actions contributed to the accident. The agency, however, said the phone conversation was inappropriate and such conduct is unacceptable.