Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Midair Over The Hudson

One digit in a radio frequency might have made all the difference

At 11:52:19, the controller told the pilot to contact the Newark controller on a frequency of 127.85. The pilot responded, but said, “One two seven point eight,” an incorrect frequency. This transmission was the last communication between the pilot and ATC. The NTSB concluded that the TEB local controller didn’t correct the airplane pilot’s readback of the wrong frequency because he was busy on the phone and handling other transmissions. Because the airplane pilot had likely entered an incorrect frequency into his radio, he wouldn’t have been able to receive traffic advisories until he returned to the TEB controller or established contact on the correct EWR frequency.

The EWR controller called the TEB controller, asking him to transfer communications for the flight and put the airplane on a heading of 220, to keep it away from other traffic over the Hudson River while remaining clear of the final approach course for runway 22 at EWR. At 11:52:28, while still on the phone with the female in airport operations, the TEB controller asked the EWR controller to repeat the instruction, which he did. Then, the TEB controller twice tried to radio the Piper pilot, but received no response.

The TEB controller’s telephone conversation with airport operations ended at 11:53:10. About seven seconds later, the TEB controller asked the EWR controller about the status of the Piper and was told that the pilot had not made contact. It’s speculation, but had the pilot contacted EWR, he might have been cleared to climb into the Class B airspace, been given a slightly different heading, or been warned about conflicting traffic.

At 11:52:00, the helicopter had taken off for its planned 12-minute tour. The helicopter appeared on ATC radar at 11:52:28, near the midpoint of the river and climbing through 400 feet. Radar data showed that the helicopter flew to the west side of the river, turned to the south to follow the river, and continued to climb to an altitude of 1,100 feet.

A Liberty Helicopters pilot who was waiting to depart told investigators that the accident helicopter pilot made a position report on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) used in the VFR exclusion area. The pilot on the ground saw the airplane approaching the helicopter from behind and to the right.

The pilot couldn’t transmit a traffic advisory to the accident helicopter pilot on the CTAF until after the accident helicopter pilot completed his position report. The accident helicopter pilot didn’t respond to the advisory.

Radar data showed that the collision happened at 11:53:14. The aircraft were at an altitude of 1,100 feet. Both aircraft fell into the Hudson River. Between 11:52:33 and 11:53:24, conflict alerts for the accident airplane and an aircraft squawking 1200 (which the helicopter was using) were generated 11 times to the TEB local controller and the EWR Class B airspace controller. Neither controller recalled seeing or hearing a conflict alert on his radar display during that time.

The Piper pilot, age 60, held a private pilot certificate and was instrument rated. He had logged 1,121 hours, with 834 hours in the Piper PA-32. The helicopter pilot, age 32, held a commercial pilot certificate for rotorcraft/helicopter. He had 2,741 hours, with 781 hours in the AS350.


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