‘Live Trucks in the Sky’

I remember years ago waking to an early morning call from an assignment manager at KNXV-TV in Phoenix.
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On July 27, two choppers for two Phoenix broadcast stations collided while pursuing a news story, killing all four occupants. In the following article, TV Technology correspondent Ian MacSpadden relates his experiences as a former chopper pilot for one of the Phoenix stations.

(click thumbnail)Former KNXV Chopper Pilot Carey Domres at the controls during a sandstorm in Arizona.
PHOENIX
I remember years ago waking to an early morning call from an assignment manager at KNXV-TV in Phoenix. He could barely keep his voice steady as he informed me that there was a huge accident south of where I lived that had shut down the entire interstate. His next words sent me flying out of bed, “we are sending the chopper to pick you up.”

For news photographers who love breaking news, this is the type of call we live for. I jumped into my news rig and drove to an open area of desert less than a minute from my house. As I pulled my camera from the back of the truck I could hear the deep thrumming of our A-Star chopper as it crested the mountain range that separated my suburb from the city of Phoenix. The A-Star is a three bladed helicopter, rather than the two bladed jet rangers then used by most news stations in other markets. It was more powerful and the most desired news helicopter of its day.

I cued my pilot on the two-way radio that I was ready for pickup and he quickly descended to get me. As I jumped in and secured my harness, he shared with me what he knew about the wreckage that involved dozens of vehicles. While sobered by the thought of injuries and possible fatalities, I remember the adrenaline rush I felt while en route to the scene thinking “it just doesn’t get any better than flying to a story.”

‘A Sobering
Reminder’
“Broadcasters take seriously our role as first informers in providing viewers and listeners with breaking news and emergency information. This incident serves as a sobering reminder that the noble profession of journalism can often carry special risks.”
David K. Rehr, president/CEO, National Association of Broadcasters

(click thumbnail)Scott Bowerbank

(click thumbnail)Jim Cox

(click thumbnail)Rick Krolak

(click thumbnail)Craig Smith
“Our hearts go out to the pilots and photographers, their families and their colleagues. This is a time to reflect on the importance of their work and their passionate drive to protect and serve our community and neighbors with information. It is important to recognize the unique public service provided by the brave men and women who pilot and report from news helicopters.”
Barbara Cochran, president, Radio-Television News Directors AssociationA PERSONAL LOSS

While such coverage was far from run-of-the-mill in the 80s and early to mid-90s, today this scenario is the norm across the country. The passion and professionalism of the flight crews remain the same, but the helicopters and the camera equipment on board are more sophisticated than ever. That’s why I was stunned when I heard that two news helicopters had collided in midair on the afternoon of Friday, July 27 in Arizona. Four journalists who dedicated their lives to gathering the news—and who were covering a police chase—had now become the story.

When I learned the crash occurred in Phoenix killing both pilots and photographers, my heart sank. Having worked in that market for more than a decade, I knew there was a strong possibility that I personally knew one or more of the news staff who died. My worst fear was confirmed when I learned that it was KTVK and KNXV, the ABC affiliate where I used to work. During my stint as chief photographer at KNXV, I had flown with Scott Bowerbank of KTVK and I had hired photographer Rick Krolak at KNXV, (the other victims were Jim Cox of KTVK and Craig Smith of KNXV). These were very personal losses for me, but beyond that laid the aching question of how could something like this happen?

As the impact of the tragic event started to sink in, I reached out to some of my former colleagues in Phoenix, most of who were in shock. Inevitably, in searching for answers to the cause of the accident, we began to look back on our early flying experiences and how the use of helicopters has dramatically changed for today’s crews.

For years the station helicopter was primarily used for newsgathering at remote or distant sites. But a definite turning point, at least in the Phoenix market, came in 1996 when a 12-year-old autistic boy and his older brother who tried to stop him climbed to the top of a 125-foot high voltage tower near their home in Mesa, Ariz.

As the four local news helicopters arrived on the scene, they were all asked to fly at a safe distance to prevent scaring the children who were now precariously straddling the top of the tower. The evening newscasts all began with somewhat bouncy and distant shots of the tower, all except for KNXV, whose chopper I was in that night. We showed a close-up of the boys that was so clear you could see the terror in their eyes.

Phone calls began pouring in to the KNXV switchboard scolding the station for flying so close to the children. Marc Bailey, the anchor of the broadcast calmly assured viewers that the station’s chopper was not flying near the children. He asked that we zoom out to show that we were indeed just as far away as all of the other news choppers. The reason for KNXV’s incredible close-ups was its use of the first ever nose-mounted high-power camera in the market. Within a year of this incident, virtually every station in the market had purchased or rented equally powerful gyro-stabilized cameras and chopper footage became mainstream to daily newscasts.

PILOTS FIRST

Jim Kent, director of photography for Art Gecko Productions in Phoenix, and a former KNXV employee, is concerned that stations have gradually transitioned their helicopters to function as “live trucks in the sky. “Those who fly news choppers in Phoenix are always pilots first and reporters second, but the pressures being put on them to do more will inherently add more risk to their jobs,” he said.

Kent cautioned that “the high temperatures in Phoenix limit the weight load the helicopters can carry, so two-person crews have become the norm here.” Kent recommends that the camera controls be equipped to work from the front seat of the helicopter so an extra set of eyes (the photographer’s) is available for the pilot during the period of distraction. Currently most photographers are seated in the rear of the helicopter with limited views except through their camera monitor.

I have always been a strong advocate for having the pilot or photographer narrate what they are seeing during breaking news. There’s no doubt it makes for compelling television. But the practice I have always considered to be unsafe and often unnecessary is the on-camera live shot by the pilot.

In most ENG helicopters there is a small camera mounted in the front cabin that can point at either the pilot or a reporter seated next to him. When the cockpit “talent” light and camera are pointed at the pilot, he has to take his eyes off both his instruments and the airspace to look into the camera lens.

I remember the inside of the canopy literally becoming a mirror while my pilot was live on the air and how I would become his eyes during those 15-20 seconds of airtime. Just as driving at night with your dome light on in your car isn’t a good idea, requests like this make a pilot’s job even more difficult.

Scott Wallace, president of the Broadcast Pilots Association credits his industry’s strong safety record on both skilled pilots and the teamwork that generally exists between pilots. “We haven’t had an accident since the WNBC chopper had hydraulic failure two years ago in New York, then in the course of three days we have two.”

The second crash Wallace referred to happened in Dallas just days after the Phoenix crash and was due to engine failure. Fortunately, the pilot brought down the aircraft safely and the crew sustained only minor injuries. Wallace added that “never before in the history of news aviation had two aircraft ever collided.”

A LASTING IMPACT

There are very specific, though unwritten procedures that broadcast pilots follow when covering a story and entering into shared airspace. These practices are what keep multiple aircraft a safe distance from one another. I have seen these practices work time and again and I have never during my years of flight ever felt at risk of a collision.

While we don’t yet know the cause of the Phoenix crash, the National Transportation Safety Board is officially investigating the accident and will eventually provide a final ruling on what happened that fateful afternoon in Phoenix.

Whatever the finding, it is unlikely to alter the viewers’ desire for the coverage they’ve become accustomed to. But it is likely to have a lasting impact on just how much the pilots are willing to risk for stations who want the ultimate shot from their eye in the sky.