Jokes about Barbecuing a Cat Preceded Midair Crash

August 20, 2009 - 12:55 PM
Two minutes after he cleared a private plane for takeoff and a fateful flight over the Hudson River, an air traffic controller at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport was on the phone with a woman in the airport operations office, joking about barbecuing a dead cat.

In this Aug. 12, 2009 file photo, investigators examine the wreckage of an airplane, right, that sits on a pier next to the the wreckage of a helicopter in Hoboken, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

Washington (AP) - Two minutes after he cleared a private plane for takeoff and a fateful flight over the Hudson River, an air traffic controller at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport was on the phone with a woman in the airport operations office, joking about barbecuing a dead cat.
 
"We got plenty of gas in the grill?" the controller asked. "Fire up the cat."
 
"Ooh, disgusting, augh, that thing was disgusting," the woman responded.
 
According to a draft government transcript obtained by The Associated Press, the two continued to banter until seconds before the private plane collided with a tour helicopter over the Hudson.
 
Nine people - three members of a Pennsylvania family in the plane and five Italian tourists and a pilot in the helicopter - died in the Aug. 8 accident.
 
The transcripts conform with a sequence of events laid out last week by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, although they differ slightly on the exact time events occurred.
 
The AP obtained the transcripts from a source familiar with the investigation who wasn't authorized to release them and asked not to be identified.
 
The transcripts don't identify by name either the controller or the other person on the phone, but people familiar with the investigation said the call was to a woman.
 
Officials for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages the airport, said last week that the phone call, made on a landline that controllers use to contact other parts of the airport, was to an employee of Baltimore-based AvPORTS, a contractor at Teterboro. They didn't identify the employee.
 
The bantering began in an earlier phone call, during which the woman discussed how she and another worker had picked up the cat from airport property. That call ended 12 minutes before the Piper's pilot, Steven Altman of Ambler, Pa., told the tower he was ready for takeoff. The controller directed the Piper toward the Hudson, handed off responsibility for the plane to nearby Newark Liberty International Airport and gave the pilot the radio frequency to contact Newark.
 
The controller then called the woman back and resumed joking about the cat, which the controller had used binoculars to watch the woman pick up. The bantering kept up until the Teterboro controller was contacted by radio by a Newark controller who was concerned about aircraft in the path of the Piper.
 
"Hey, Teterboro, Newark. Would you switch that guy, maybe put him on a two-twenty heading to get away from that other traffic please?" the Newark controller said.
 
"Say again, Newark," the Teterboro controller responded
 
"Can you switch that PA-32 (the Piper)?" the Newark controller said.
 
"I ... did keep an eye on him, though," the Teterboro controller said.
 
"I'm not talking to him, so ..." responded the Newark controller.
 
The Teterboro controller then tried unsuccessfully to radio the Piper.
 
"One mike charlie, Newark is (on frequency) twenty-seven eighty-five," the Teterboro controller told the plane. And then he reported to Newark: "He's lost in the hertz, try him again."
 
The Newark controller tried unsuccessfully to raise the Piper: "One mike charlie, Newark."
 
Shortly after that the controller explained to the woman on the phone that the Piper pilot probably had the wrong radio frequency.
 
Eight seconds later, the controller said, "Damn. ... Let me straighten stuff out," and ended the call.
 
The transcripts don't indicate the accident time, but the NTSB has said the phone call ended one second before the collision. The transcripts also don't show when the tour helicopter showed up on the controller's radar screen, but the safety board has said it was immediately after he transferred control of the Piper to Newark.
 
The Federal Aviation Administration said last week that it has placed the controller and his supervisor, who was out of the building at the time, on administrative leave pending an investigation. The agency said the controller's actions were inappropriate and unacceptable, but didn't appear to have contributed to the accident.
 
That prompted a rebuke from the NTSB, which said it was up to the board to determine what role the controller's actions may have played in the accident.
 
A spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said Wednesday the nature of the phone conversation wasn't relevant to the accident investigation.
 
"This phone call and the FAA's allegations that it was inappropriate are something that will be handled by the FAA in a disciplinary matter we will be involved in, but the bottom line for us is that this call had nothing to do with this tragic accident that occurred," said the spokesman, Doug Church.
 
Michael Barr, who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California, said the controller shouldn't have been involved in a personal phone call while on duty, but "if he did everything correctly and it had no impact on the event, then it's a red herring."