The National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended to the FAA that news chopper pilots not double as reporters under some conditions, but it did not conclude they should never do so.
The NTSB, which investigates transportation accidents, did conclude that the twin responsibility of piloting and reporting contributed to the deadly mid-air collision between two helicopters covering a police pursuit in Phoenix last year.
"A pilot's first and primary responsibility is to operate the aircraft in a safe manner," NTSB Acting Chairman Mark Rosenker said last week during a board meeting presenting the findings of its investigation into the crash of helicopters covering the chase for KTVK and KNXV in July 2007.
"Assigning someone else, other than the flying pilot, to perform the reporting duties in ENG operations and improved technology to assist pilots in distinguishing between the shape of airborne objects operating below them and the surrounding terrain will prevent accidents like this from occurring again," he said.
Both pilots and a photographer aboard each helicopter were killed in the crash.
The board concluded that the probable cause of the accident was "both pilots failure to see and avoid" each other.
Contributing to this failure, the board said, was their "responsibility to perform reporting and visual tracking duties to
support their stations' electronic newsgathering responsibilities."
But the NTSB did not conclude that pilots can't be reporters too.
The board recommended that the FAA require ENG operators to conduct an evaluation of traffic density and communications requirements and, "if necessary, assign reporting responsibility to someone other than the pilot, so that the pilot's workload remains manageable under all conditions."
Board member Debbie Hersman said she thought the board should have recommended that stations divide the duties as the default setting, as it were, and make it incumbent upon the industry to demonstrate how pilots can both report and fly safely, rather than say they must divide duties only when they deem it necessary. "I think we need[ed] to flip the evaluation," she said, "from being 'if necessary, assign the reporting duties to someone else' to 'assign the duties to someone else, but if you can demonstrate it can be done safely, that's fine.'"
"The public's right to news does not outweigh the responsibilities for aviation safety," she said, "I don't think the four lives that were lost in Arizona was worth watching that cops and robbers drama."
NTSB staffers Jeffrey Guzzetti conceded that the staff stopped just short of recommending separating the duties in all cases, saying that there are up to 20 midair collisions a year between pilots not doing any reporting. He said they may have been distracted by their broadcast duties, but that the staff took into account economic reasons and local familiarity with the pilot/personalities--he cited Walt Starling for one--in not simply saying the duties should always be separated. He said the idea was to allow the industry to maneuver without a one-size-fits-all solution.
Acting Chairman Rosenker, who was formerly in the ENG business, said that what the board is saying is: Give us a reason why there should be combined duties, and if not, separate them. He said the board was trying to help broadcasters get the story, but to get it safely.
The board had 10 recommendations for the FAA including requiring that news choppers use high-visibility blade paint schemes and anti-collision lights, and that standards are developed for helicopter cockpit electronic traffic systems. To check out all 10 recommendations click here.