We count on the NTSB to get the facts right. That confidence is, unfortunately, sometimes misplaced. The truth is that the NTSB gets it wrong. A lot. I’ve written about that here, here, and here.
The NTSB has now given us further reason to question whether it deserves the confidence we place in it. On Friday, the NTSB came out with a block-buster press release condemning the Teterboro air traffic controller who had cleared the Piper airplane for takeoff. According to the NTSB's report, the Teterboro controller could see on his radar screen that the Piper pilot was on a possible collision course with the Liberty Tours helicopter. In fact, according to the NTSB, the controller could see the conflict before the Piper pilot switched off from the Teterboro controller’s frequency. Yet, according to the NTSB, the controller failed to warn the Piper pilot.
At 1152:20 the Teterboro controller instructed the pilot to contact Newark on a frequency of 127.85. . . 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.
That was wrong. True, the controller was on the phone when he should not have been. But the helicopter did not appear on the controller’s radar screen until after the Piper pilot was supposed to have switched to a new frequency. Of course, by then it was too late for the controller to advise the pilot of anything. In other words, it appears that there was nothing the controller could have done -- whether he was on the phone or not.
Over the weekend, the air traffic controllers’ union privately asked the NTSB to correct its error. The NTSB refused. So today the union issued its own press release setting the record straight. The press release claims that the NTSB's account, which implies that the controller should have prevented the accident, is "outright false" and "misleading." Worse, it charges that the NTSB knows it, but refuses to correct its error.
This afternoon, after the controllers' union went to the press, the NTSB finally conceded that it was, in fact, wrong. It thus issued a new press release, explaining that the controller could not have seen the helicopter after all.
The accident helicopter was not visible on the Teterboro controller's radar scope at 1152:20 [when the controller instructed the Piper to change frequencies]; it did appear on radar 7 seconds later - at approximately 400 feet.
The NTSB offered no apology for its error. Nor did it offer an explanation. Rather, despite that the union was right, and the NTSB was wrong, the NTSB’s only reaction was to kick the union off the investigation.
The NTSB’s blunder was a whopper. It laid blame for the accident where it does not appear to belong. The NTSB's only interest is supposed to be in getting the facts right. If that’s so, why did it not correct its error when the union asked it to? Why did it require the union to force the issue?