Nine Lives: Air Controller Heard Joking About Dead Cat Just Before Air Collision

180px-AeroportoGuarulhos_TorreInterno180px-PA44180The FAA has released a disturbing tape (below) of an air traffic controller who is heard over a flight recording joking about a dead cat with a female friend as a small plane and tourist helicopter collided in midair — killing nine.

The recording of the controller at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey shows him deep in conversation and joking with a woman about her revulsion over the carcass of a cat. The Associated Press is credited in forcing the disclosure through the Freedom of Information Act. My question is why it takes a FOIA action to force the release of such an important piece of information. While the controllers association has denounced the release as blaming the controller, it was never revealed until August that the controller appeared distracted in such a frivolous conversation.

The controller cleared the single-engine Piper for takeoff at 11:48 and 30 seconds a.m. EDT, and remained on the telephone in a conversation about a dead cat removed from the airport until the crash occurred.

The tape shows the controller going back and forth between the call and the aircraft. The first call occurred 12 minutes before the Piper’s pilot, Steven Altman of Ambler, Pa., said he was ready for takeoff. The first conversation discusses the dead cat. The controller then calls the woman:

He is heard saying “We got plenty of gas in the grill? Fire up the cat.” She responds by saying “Ooh, disgusting, augh, that thing was disgusting.” They go back and forth until the controller is contacted by a Newark controller about the Piper being on a collision course. The Newark controller says, “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 Teterboro controller responds by saying “Say again, Newark.”

The Newark controller asks “Can you switch that PA-32 (the Piper)?”

The Teterboro controller responds with “I … did keep an eye on him, though.”

The Newark controller responds “I’m not talking to him, so …” while Teterboro tries to radio the Piper. He is joined by Newark. The Telerboro controller is then heard telling the woman on the phone that the Piper pilot probably has the wrong radio frequency.

Eight seconds later, the controller is heard saying, “Damn. … Let me straighten stuff out,” and ended the call.

The tape would appear compelling evidence for a possible torts action by the families of the deceased. While it appears that the controller was trying to reach the plane, he also appears for a short time to be rather distracted. However, the controller may be able to argue that the case fails factual causation and that, even if he had not been on the phone, the Piper would not have heard his messages.

For the tape, click here.

For the story, click here.

3 thoughts on “Nine Lives: Air Controller Heard Joking About Dead Cat Just Before Air Collision”

  1. Huh? Did I miss something? I thought that the plane and chopper were flying under Visual Flight Rules. That means the controllers are not “controlling” or responsible for those flights. Responsibility falls to the pilots to literally “see and avoid” the other traffic around them. Have more details come out that differed from the initial reporting that they were under VFR?

    (If anyone’s interested, Ask the Pilot is a great column in written by an actual airline pilot who debunks lots of crazy airplane myths, corrects lots of awful “journalism” about plane crashes and waxes poetic about plane and airport design – great stuff, but you have to hunt for it a bit.)

  2. Mahatma Gandhi said, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals.” The truth in this statement should prompt police, investigators and prosecutors to vigorously investigate and prosecute – to the fullest degree possible – those who abuse animals in America.

    quote from National District Attorney’s Association blog:

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