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August 21, 2009

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Air traffic controller jokes before fatal crash

TWO minutes after he cleared a private plane for takeoff and a fateful flight over the Hudson River, an American air traffic controller at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport was on the phone to a woman, joking about barbecuing a 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, 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 August 8 accident.

The transcripts didn't identify the controller or the woman. The bantering began in an earlier phone call, during which the woman discussed how she had picked up the cat from airport property.

That call ended 12 minutes before the Piper's pilot, Steven Altman, 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, keeping it up until he was contacted by radio by a Newark controller who was concerned about aircraft in the path of the Piper.

The controller then tried unsuccessfully to radio the Piper.

Eight seconds later, the controller said, "Damn ... Let me straighten stuff out," and ended the call, one second before the collision.

The Federal Aviation Administration said last week the controller's actions were inappropriate and unacceptable, but didn't appear to have contributed to the accident.

But the National Transport Safety Bureau said it was up to it to decide.


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