NTSB recommends new safety rules for ENG helicopters

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called for new restrictions on helicopter pilots who report for television and fly at the same time. The recommendations come after an investigation into the cause of a deadly collision between two Arizona news helicopters in July 2007.

The chopper crash occurred as a group of TV news helicopters were vying for position above a police car chase in Phoenix. On the ground, a fleeing suspect was in the process of abandoning one car and taking control of another. Maneuvering to capture the events, two helicopters crashed, killing their pilots and two cameramen.

When the accident occurred there were four TV news helicopters and a single police helicopter in the area, with a fifth news helicopter on the way. The crash involved helicopters representing KTVK-TV and KNXV-TV.

The NTSB said last week that the pilots were juggling a number of tasks at the same time, which likely contributed to the accident. They voted unanimously to recommend that operators of news helicopters assign the reporting role to someone other than the flying pilot, unless the operator can prove that a pilot’s workload is “manageable under all conditions.”

According to a report in the “Washington Post,” the pilots were responsible for monitoring multiple radios including air-to-air communication with other pilots in the area, communication with the air traffic control system, a line back to the television station, and on-board intercoms connecting them with cameramen. The pilots were also monitoring police communication and watching the action on the ground to deliver play-by-play narration in live reports — all while flying the aircraft.

“We need to put the obligation on them to show how combining [the two roles] is safe,” said Deborah Hersman, an agency board member. “This accident is an early warning sign for us — a canary in the coal mine. It showed that if these pilots got distracted, then other pilots could get distracted.”

The NTSB estimates that as many as 140 news helicopters operate in the United States. Some work under informal procedures and agreements with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The NTSB also recommended stronger rules governing how far news helicopters should stay from one another. And the agency called for flickering blades, anti-collision lights, and warning advisory systems specially tailored to helicopters. The recommendations now go to the FAA for action.