In life, everyone makes mistakes.
Most of the time, that’s really a good thing though because it offers us a unique path to become better at what we do. Being human though, admitting we screwed something up is not always easy, it’s downright embarrassing in fact. In government, admitting someone said or did something wrong is not viewed as an opportunity to learn or even as a simple mistake. It is – and always has been – seen as a sign of weakness, a philosophy that seems even more contradictory in our nation today now that transparency is the new goal.
In the case of the NTSB update report on the midair collision over the Hudson River last week, the safety board simply screwed up by including four little words in their initial report that didn’t belong there … “including the accident helicopter.” Those words were simply not correct.
The inference was that the Teterboro Tower controller should have noticed the helicopter on radar and pointed him out to the PA-32 pilot. As it turns out, the helicopter did not appear on the tower controller’s scope until after he had already turned the aircraft over to Newark approach. On Friday, the controller’s union – NATCA - took the unprecedented action of calling a news conference to clarify this error, something the NTSB was not at all happy about. The safety board said Monday that since NATCA had violated confidentiality rules and that they were being removed from the investigation.
Things Become Curiouser and Curiouser
In the NTSB news release that removed the union as a party to the investigation, the safety board confirmed the controller did not have the helicopter on radar before he switched him to Newark. Although the wording of the title of the release appears to focus only on the union’s removal, the words are there, buried in the sixth paragraph, “The accident helicopter was not visible on the Teterboro controller’s radar scope at 1152:20; it did appear on radar 7 seconds later – at approximately 400 feet.” The board should be applauded for that, especially because these kinds of admissions from the feds are rare, even if it is pretty tough to find. It was, of course, the right thing to do because it took everyone’s eyes off the ball, the real cause of the accident.
Doug Church, NATCA’s Director of Communication, told me today that the union did not take the move of going public with their concerns lightly and that they tried on numerous occasions to work with the safety board behind the scenes before going public again on Monday. “We needed to correct the misinterpretation of the facts that evolved from the NTSB’s original release last Friday.” Church said the union had received an e-mail from an NTSB representative admitting the error, but also making it quite clear the board had no intention of changing anything it had said previously.
Although the NTSB’s news releases have caused a media feeding frenzy and despite that fact that NTSB has admitted they got it wrong, the board has not considered readmitting the controller’s union back into the investigation process. That’s just plain silly at this point. Enough. The NTSB needs to finish the job. Yes NATCA violated a precious NTSB rule this time around, but you – the NTSB – got it wrong too. How about if we just call it a draw. Both groups need to learn to play nicer together.
The Crucial Point
NATCA has a perspective on this accident that is critical to understanding the cause. Arguably, there will be quite a bit of discussion about the Teterboro controller’s telephone conversation when he should have been attending to work, but to me that is even more a reason the union needs to be a part of the investigation.
Bob Richards, a former O’Hare controller and union activist for many years and author of Secrets From the Tower, said, “The NTSB did the right thing by correcting the mistake and retracting the error but not letting the union back into the investigation is unforgivable. They did the right thing and they need to do one more right thing.”
NTSB, finish the job. Bring the union back into the investigation and let’s all get back to the work at hand, preventing another midair collision.
Rob Mark, editor