In its continuing investigation of the midair collision of an air tour helicopter and a small plane over the Hudson River on Saturday, the National Transportation Safety Board has developed the following factual information:
On August 8, 2009, at 11:53 a.m. EDT, a Eurocopter AS 350 BA (N401LH) operated by Liberty Helicopters and a Piper PA-32R- 300 (N71MC) operated by a private pilot, collided in midair over the Hudson River near Hoboken, New Jersey. The certificated commercial pilot and five passengers onboard the helicopter were killed. The certificated private pilot and two passengers onboard the airplane were also killed. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plans were filed for either flight. The local sightseeing helicopter flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 136. The personal airplane flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.
The helicopter departed West 30th Street Heliport (JRA), New York, New York, for a sightseeing tour at 11:52 a.m. The airplane departed Teterboro Airport (TEB), Teterboro, New Jersey, at 11:49 a.m.; destined for Ocean City Municipal Airport (26N), Ocean City, New Jersey. The airplane pilot requested an en route altitude of 3500 feet.
According to preliminary radar data, the helicopter turned south from JRA and climbed to 1,100 feet, with a transponder code of 1200. According to witnesses, the pilot of the helicopter had transmitted a position report of "Stevens Point" (Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey) on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF), 123.05.
On the day of the accident, Teterboro Air Traffic Control Tower staff consisted of five controllers. At the time of the accident, the tower was staffed with two controllers: one controller was working ground control, local control, and arrival radar, and was also acting as the controller in charge of the facility. The second controller was working the flight data/clearance delivery position. Two other controllers were on break and the front line manager had left the facility at about 1145.
At 1148:30, the Teterboro tower controller cleared the airplane for takeoff on frequency 119.50. The first radar target for the airplane was recorded at 1149:55 as the flight departed runway 19.
The tower controller advised the airplane and the pilot of another helicopter operating in the area of each other and instructed the pilot of the airplane to remain at or below 1,100 feet. At this time, the tower controller initiated a non-business-related phone call to Teterboro Airport Operations. The airplane flew southbound until the controller instructed its pilot to turn left to join the Hudson River. At 1152:20 the Teterboro controller instructed the pilot to contact Newark on a frequency of 127.85; the airplane reached the Hudson River just north of Hoboken about 40 seconds later. At that time there were several aircraft detected by radar in the area immediately ahead of the airplane, including the accident helicopter, all of which were potential traffic conflicts for the airplane. The Teterboro tower controller, who was engaged in a phone call at the time, did not advise the pilot of the potential traffic conflicts. The Newark tower controller observed air traffic over the Hudson River and called Teterboro to ask that the controller instruct the pilot of the airplane to turn toward the southwest to resolve the potential conflicts. The Teterboro controller then attempted to contact the airplane but the pilot did not respond. The collision occurred shortly thereafter. A review of recorded air traffic control communications showed that the pilot did not call Newark before the accident occurred.
The helicopter departed from the 30th Street Heliport at 1152 for what was planned to be a 12-minute tour. The initial part of the tour was to be flown outside class B airspace, so the pilot was not required to contact air traffic control before or after departure. The first radar target for the helicopter was detected by Newark radar at about 1152:27, when the helicopter was approximately mid- river west of the heliport and climbing through 400 feet. According to recorded radar data, the helicopter flew to the west side of the river, and then turned southbound to follow the Hudson. According to Liberty Helicopters management, this was the expected path for the tour flight. The helicopter continued climbing southbound until 1153:14, when it and the airplane collided at 1,100 feet.
As noted above, immediately after the Teterboro tower controller instructed the airplane to contact Newark tower on frequency 127.85, the Newark controller called the Teterboro controller to request that they turn the airplane to a heading of 220 degrees (southwest) and transfer communications on the aircraft. As the Newark controller was providing the suggested heading to the Teterboro controller, the pilot of the airplane was acknowledging the frequency change to the Teterboro controller. The Teterboro controller made two unsuccessful attempts to reach the pilot, with the second attempt occurring at 1152:50. At 1152:54, 20 seconds prior to the collision, the radar data processing system detected a conflict between the airplane and the helicopter, which set off aural alarms and a caused a "conflict alert" indication to appear on the radar displays at both Teterboro and Newark towers. During interviews both controllers stated that they did not recall seeing or hearing the conflict alert. At 1153:19, five seconds after the collision, the Teterboro controller contacted the Newark controller to ask about the airplane, and was told that the pilot had not called. There were no further air traffic control contacts with either aircraft. The role that air traffic control might have played in this accident will be determined by the NTSB as the investigation progresses. Any opinions rendered at this time are speculative and premature.
Radar data and witness statements indicate that the aircraft collided at 1,100 feet in the vicinity of Stevens Point. Most of the wreckage fell in to the Hudson River; however, some small debris from the airplane, including the right main landing gear wheel, fell on land within the city limits of Hoboken. The collision was witnessed by numerous people in the area of the accident and was immediately reported to local emergency responders.
The helicopter was recovered on August 9, 2009. Most of the helicopter components were accounted for at the scene, with the exception of the main rotor and transmission. The airplane was recovered on August 11, 2009. Most of the airplane components were accounted for at the scene, with the exception of both wings. The wreckages were subsequently transported to a secure facility in Delaware.
The pilot of the airplane, age 60, held a private pilot certificate, with ratings for airplane single-engine land, airplane multiengine land and instrument airplane. His most recent FAA third-class medical certificate was issued on May 14, 2009. At that time he reported a total flight experience of 1,020 hours.
The pilot of the helicopter, age 32, held a commercial pilot certificate, with ratings for rotorcraft helicopter and instrument helicopter. His most recent FAA second-class medical certificate was issued on June 16, 2009. At that time he reported a total flight experience of 3,010 hours. Digital photographs and a video recording taken by witnesses to the accident have been provided to the NTSB. In addition, a digital camera was recovered from the helicopter. All of these were sent to the NTSB Vehicle Recorders Laboratory in Washington, DC for further examination. Global Positioning System units were recovered from both aircraft and also forwarded to the NTSB Vehicle Recorders Laboratory.
The recorded weather at TEB at 1151 was wind variable at 3 knots, visibility 10 miles, sky clear, temperature 24 degrees Celsius, dew point 7 degrees Celsius, altimeter 30.23 inches of mercury.