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Are Reporters Safe in the Skies?

TV news directors say their choppers are as safe as ever, but the use of pilot-reporters raises questions 8/06/2007 03:29:00 AM Eastern

On the afternoon of July 27, KNXV (Channel 15) and KTVK (Channel 3) were among five television news helicopters tracking the police pursuit of 23-year-old Christopher Jones, who authorities say stole a car, then hijacked a work truck and sped into central Phoenix.

KNXV pilot Craig Smith described the scene for the station’s coverage. Then, he spoke his last words: “Where’s 3? How far? Oh, jeez. 3, I’m right over you. 15 on top of you. I’m over the top of you.”

Moments later, the two choppers collided.

According to results of a preliminary National Transportation and Safety Board investigation released Aug, 2, witnesses told investigators that the KTVK helicopter appeared stationary when Smith’s helicopter collided with it.

Smith and photographer Rick Krolak and KTVK pilot Scott Bowerbank and photographer Jim Cox were killed when their choppers fell 1,100 feet to the ground and burst into flames. According to the NTSB report, the crash appears to be the result of pilot error. Wreckage of both choppers came to rest 75 feet from each other in a park.

A comprehensive investigation into the tragic accident will not be completed for several months.

Meanwhile, the crash has rained a flurry of questions down on news directors and chopper pilots navigating increasingly competitive local markets and crowded metro airspace. “This is a tragedy that didn’t have to happen but has been waiting to happen for a long, long time,” says Mike Rauch, a former news director and leader in the development of helicopter platforms at the local-news level.

Indeed, many close calls are never reported. Two years ago, while flying in controlled airspace, Larry Welk, chief pilot-reporter at KCAL/KCBS Los Angeles, caught a glimpse of a fast-approaching single-engine Piper Malibu about 20 feet away, which is less than the length of his helicopter. “The controller had not informed me or the plane that we were together,” he says. “I made a maneuver that saved our lives [by] banking it as far as it would bank.”

Helicopters have always been employed for traffic reports, and they are increasingly used for fires, accidents and car chases—which have reached the point of ubiquity on cable news channels. Though noting that the safety record of station choppers is commendable, some news directors are concerned about the practice of asking pilots to pull double duty as reporters.

“I can tell you from 26 years of experience, flying a helicopter is a full-time job,” says a retired Army aviator and instructor who declined to be named. “It’s very demanding. There are lots of things happening. It doesn’t take very much inattention to take a situation that’s just a minor problem and turn it into something catastrophic like we had in Phoenix.”

A COST-SAVING MEASURE

For cost-conscious local-news operations, having a pilot who can also report the scene on the ground is very attractive. “TV newsrooms are just strapped for people,” says Rauch. “There’s not one newsroom that has the reporters they need. Every time there’s a breaking-news story, if you have to get a reporter in the helicopter to go cover it, it just makes it more difficult. If a guy comes along who is a pilot and says, 'Hey, I can also report. I can also talk while I fly,’ that’s very attractive to TV stations, despite the fact that it’s not very safe.”

Many in the TV-news industry are divided on the issue of pilot-reporters. “You’ve got too big a work load,” says Paul Smith, safety director for Helicopters Inc., who also pilots WCBS New York’s helicopter. “It’s a really distracting environment. You have to really keep your focus.”

Smith has 37 years of flying experience under his belt, beginning with two tours in Vietnam. In New York’s densely populated metropolitan area, the No. 1 television market in the country, the pilot-reporter is unofficially verboten. (Several New York stations—including WNBC, WABC and WPIX—have lease agreements with Helicopters Inc., which operates more than 70 helicopters in 28 cities.)

Welk is one of the few pilot-reporters in Los Angeles, the car-chase capital of America. He has been flying in the No. 2 market for 11 years. “People have this perception that flying and talking at the same time are somehow competing with each other,” he says. “While there can be a distraction in any phase of a flight, I will stop reporting to concentrate on flying the aircraft, to communicate with other aircraft or to talk to the tower. I never get so wrapped up in watching the car that I forget about the flight.”

It’s one thing for a pilot to talk about the 3-mile backup on the Interstate, say critics; it’s another to deliver live play-by-play on a fast-moving car chase. “It’s go go go go on the part of the producers and news directors,” says Bob Steele, a former television news director and senior member of the journalism ethics faculty at The Poynter Institute. “And that can prompt the folks in the field and up in the air to take unnecessary risks.”

NBC affiliate KPNX, one of the five stations whose news helicopters were in the air at the time of the tragedy, does not use a pilot-reporter. “In Phoenix, we are most comfortable with having a reporter/photojournalist report and acquire the video,” says John Misner, president/general manager of KPNX. “I think every station has to make their own decision about that.”

After electronic-newsgathering (ENG) helicopters are cleared by air-traffic controllers to enter controlled airspace, the onus is on pilots to “maintain visual separation,” which they do in part by communicating on a dedicated frequency. In FAA parlance, that’s called “see and avoid.”

“This is the first midair collision involving TV-news helicopters that anyone can recall,” says Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor. “We have the same system in place in media markets around the country, and until [July 27], it worked great.”

ENG helicopters account for a small percentage of helicopter accidents, says Gregor. Medical-emergency helicopters, for instance, which routinely fly in inclement weather, have much higher accident and incident rates. (Of the 35 helicopter fatalities in 2005, 11 were related to Medivac choppers, according to data supplied by the FAA and the NTSB, which do not break out fatalities for news helicopters.)

With the NTSB’s conclusions on the Phoenix crash several months away, it’s unclear at this time if the FAA would consider imposing new restrictions on the ENG industry. Says Gregor, “Part of the investigation into any crash involves taking a look at whether FAA regulations were adequate.”

But the accident could encourage self-imposed industry standards limiting the use of pilot-reporters. Says one news director, “If that’s the way they were operating out there, it will change at many levels. It will change at the helicopter-company level, at the insurance-company level and at the station level.”

The television industry isn’t likely to welcome government regulation and may not be prepared to recommend reforms to a system that many believe still works. “I think the fact that this is the first such incident in the history of helicopters’ being used for newsgathering is indicative of the fact that helicopters have been used well,” says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA).

The practice of employing pilot-reporters is not unusual, but the Phoenix crash may have changed some safety perceptions. “They’ve been doing it successfully for a long time. So I’m not sure there’s a one-size-fits-all answer,” Cochran adds. “But I think it’s an issue that probably deserves further discussion and airing.”

In large and medium-size television markets, helicopters are a staple of newsgathering and a competitive necessity. Many stations lease the vehicles from helicopter companies, which also provide the pilots, photographers and reporters.

Of the 850 stations in 210 markets, 19.8% percent of them lease or own helicopters, according to a survey conducted by the RTNDA and Hofstra University. In big markets like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, stations deploy helicopters several times a day and pay from $500,000 to $1 million on annual leases, which represent their biggest budget outlays, according to industry experts. (In smaller markets, where helicopters are used less frequently, the cost can be significantly less.)

THE VALUE OF CHOPPERS

Although car chases have become a convenient whipping boy for media critics, the value of helicopters in reaching the scene of a news event quickly is paramount, say news directors. “In a world that really subsists on instant news, it is a basic tool of doing business,” says Dan Forman, senior VP, news/station manager, WNBC. “If something happens at Kennedy airport with the traffic that we have in New York, it can be two hours before [a live truck] reaches the scene. A helicopter allows the public to have some kind of information about what’s going on within 15-30 minutes.”

The Phoenix crash, where five news helicopters were hovering over the scene, also has revived a longtime suggestion for stations: pooling chopper footage. Bob Long, VP/news director at KNBC Los Angeles, favors pool coverage but says there are inherent obstacles to an industry-wide consensus. “Under those [live breaking-news] conditions, [pooling] is still a ways off,” he says. “I don’t think most of my colleagues want to give up what they consider to be a competitive edge.”

But among pilots, that competitive edge has softened. When Welk first started flying, there was a “real competitiveness about who could get the best shot and tackle a story,” he says. “The news came first and flying second. That has changed dramatically, and I’ve never felt like it is a safer time to be flying a helicopter.”

The pronounced camaraderie in the small chopper community helps to ensure safety. Joe Biermann, WCBS’ helicopter reporter, has known Dan Rice, his counterpart at WNBC for 15 years. Rice is married to Shannon Sohn, the traffic reporter at WABC, and that station’s other helicopter reporter, John DelGiorno, was a groomsman at the couple’s wedding.

“Everybody wants to be first on the scene,” concedes Biermann, “but in the best helicopter environment, safety is the first issue.”

The Phoenix tragedy hit those in the TV chopper club the hardest. “It’s chilling,” says Biermann. “Something happened to one of your colleagues, and right away, you think of their family first and how close it strikes to home.”

After the Phoenix collision, Welk says “everyone called me. You realize that this can happen to you. I have a pit in my stomach over it because it is my own worst nightmare.

“We are equally interested as to what might have gone wrong,” he adds. “The No. 1 job of a helicopter pilot is to fly safely. There is not a news story worth what we saw in Phoenix.”

 

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