WASHINGTON – The air traffic controller banters and chuckles, engrossed in a teasing phone call with a giggling friend, unaware that two aircraft are on a collision course over New York’s Hudson River.
The audio recording of their conversation, which otherwise would have been forgotten workplace joshing, stands as a record of the moments before a small plane and a tour helicopter collided, killing nine people. The recording was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Associated Press.
The controller, who was not identified, has been placed on administrative leave along with a supervisor pending an investigation of the Aug. 8 crash.
As the controller chatted on the phone, he was unaware that disaster loomed, until alerted too late by others controllers.
Amid his conversation, he can be heard directing air traffic. “Hold on real quick,” he tells his female friend at one point.
The controller and his friend, who worked at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, laughed about her finding the carcass of a cat near the airport and about her efforts to dispose of it. The controller told her he had watched the scene through binoculars from the control tower, and they joked about cooking the cat on a barbecue grill.
“Oh, my God, yeah, it was pretty bad,” she said.
“Did it smell? It couldn’t have smelled. It ain’t been there that long,” he said.
After he was unable to make radio contact with the pilot ultimately involved in the crash, the controller tells his friend: “Damn … Let me straighten this stuff out.” Then he hung up, four seconds before the collision.
Transcripts of the conversation were published previously, but FAA had refused to release the 29-minute audio recording.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, has said the controller had handed off responsibility for guiding the plane to controllers at nearby Newark Liberty International Airport seven seconds before the helicopter appeared on his radar screen. The helicopter had just lifted off from a helipad on the New York side of the river.
The pilot, Steven Altman, 60, of Ambler, Pa., apparently misheard the controller when he directed Altman to contact controllers in Newark and gave him the radio frequency. NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman told a congressional hearing last month that Altman read back the wrong radio frequency to the controller but was never corrected.
Newark controllers noticed the imminent crash on their radar, but could not reach the pilot. Nor could the Teterboro controller.
“He’s lost in the hertz,” the Teterboro controller said, a note of frustration in his voice.
Four seconds later the collision occurred, although it took controllers a moment to realize what had happened. The small plane collided with the tour helicopter, sending both aircraft hurtling into the river. All three people aboard the plane and a pilot and five Italian tourists aboard the helicopter were killed.
“Newark, Teterboro. Did you get him yet?” the Teterboro controller asked.
“Nope,” the Newark controller responded.
A few seconds later, a Newark controller said: “I think he went down in the Hudson.”