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Air Traffic Employees Removed from Duty Pending Crash Investigation; US Aircraft Ins. Group Led Coverage of Doomed Helicopter

Source: Business Insurance, Associated Press

Posted on 14 Aug 2009

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Authorities have put on paid administrative leave an air traffic controller who they say was talking on the phone during last week's fatal midair collision over New York's Hudson River, along with a supervisor who was out of the building when the crash occurred.

On August 8, a Piper single-engine airplane struck a Eurocopter AS-350 owned by New York-based Liberty Helicopters Inc, killing the pilot and five passengers in the helicopter as well as the pilot and two passengers in the airplane when the two stricken aircraft plunged into the Hudson.

The Federal Aviation Administration said late Thursday that while there was no reason to believe thus far that the employees' actions contributed to the accident, such "conduct is unacceptable." Air traffic controllers are expected to be alert at all times while on duty and typically are given about a 15-minute break every two hours for that reason.

The FAA said it has begun disciplinary proceedings against the controller, who was handling the small plane that collided with a tour helicopter, and against the supervisor on duty at the time.

The FAA said the controller at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey was involved in "apparently inappropriate conversations" on the telephone at the time of the accident. The agency said the supervisor was not in the building at the time as required.

National Transportation Safety Board and FAA investigators learned of the telephone conversation while examining recordings of telephone conversations on a landline phone in the tower that controllers use to communicate with other parts of the Teterboro Airport.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the labor union representing controllers, said in a statement that it supports a full investigation of the allegations "before there is a rush to judgment."

The FAA's action came as an amateur video surfaced that captured the moment of impact between the two aircraft. The images, taken by an Italian man practicing with a new camera while on a boat tour, shows the helicopter flying overhead when suddenly a single-engine plane appears behind it, apparently climbing and turning. The plane clips the helicopter's rotor blades, and a wing shears off. Debris rains down, and the plane flips. Both aircraft plunge toward the water.

On the video, aired yesterday on "NBC Nightly News," one or more onlookers can be heard in the background saying, "Oh, my God!"

Teterboro Airport, located directly across the Hudson River from New York City near the George Washington Bridge, handles corporate and private aircraft.

It is operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and handles nearly 200,000 flights a year.

Coverage for the helicopter was led by New York-based United States Aircraft Insurance Group (USAIG), said a spokesperson for the insurer.

A spokesperson for USAIG confirmed the aviation pool was the lead insurer of the helicopter. Chicago-based Aon Corp. was the broker, market sources said.

Insurance information was not immediately available for the Piper PA-32, which was built in 1976 and registered to Fort Washington, Pa.-based LCA Partnership, according to FAA records.