Midair sparks debate about current ENG procedures

 - August 30, 2007, 10:45 AM

The July 27 fatal midair of two television news helicopters over Phoenix has prompted the industry and federal regulators to re-examine the sector’s operating procedures, including the practices of using a combination single pilot/on-air reporter and allowing multiple news helicopters to cover police chases.

While broadcasting a police chase, a pair of Eurocopter AS 350B2s collided when their pilots apparently lost sight of each other, killing both pilot/reporters and their cameramen. KNXV Channel 15 pilot/ reporter Craig Smith and cameraman Rick Krolak and KTVK Channel 3 pilot/reporter Scott Bowerbank and cameraman Jim Cox were killed in the accident. Both pilots had considerable news-flying experience. The AS 350s were part of a covey of five television news helicopters and one police helicopter following a stolen pick-up truck.

In the moments before the crash, Channel 15 pilot Smith could be heard over the radio asking, “Where’s [Channel] 3? Like how far? Oh geez. Three, I’m right over you. Fifteen’s right over you.”

At that point the helicopters collided and the television signal from the Channel 15 helicopter went dead at 12:47 p.m. The helicopters met at approximately 1,100 feet agl. Wreckage from both fell into a city park and burned. There were no injuries on the ground, but debris was strewn over a half-mile area.

Channel 15’s helicopter was a 1998 AStar owned and operated by U.S. Helicopters of Marshville, N.C., a firm that specializes in outfitting and providing helicopters to television stations. Of the approximately 175 electronic news-gathering (ENG) helicopters operating nationwide, 75 percent are owned by U.S. Helicopters, Helinet or Helicopters Inc. These firms provide turnkey leases that cover the helicopters and/or their pilot/reporters, according to Scott Wallace, president of the National Broadcast Pilots Association (NBPA). Channel 3’s AStar was a 1995 model owned by the parent company of Channel 3.

New Operating Procedures Possible
The NTSB’s preliminary report on the accident suggests that the crash occurred when the Channel 15 helicopter settled on top of the one from Channel 3. It is the first midair collision between a pair of ENG helicopters and the second involving a news helicopter. That occurred four decades ago when a Bell JetRanger operated by Los Angeles radio station KMPC collided with a fire department helicopter over Dodger Stadium. All four aboard both helicopters were killed in that crash.

The Phoenix crash has prompted calls for new operating procedures for ENG helicopters. One solution might be to restrict the number of ENG helicopters allowed to cover car chases over an area and to force stations to pool their pictures.

The long-established practice in most markets of using pilots who double as reporters while flying also drew fire from several quarters as unsafely over-taxing pilot concentration and abilities. David Willis, whose Houston law firm specializes in helicopter crash litigation, told AIN that the practice was “stupidity,” adding, “With as many chase scenes as they [ENG helicopters] do, they’ve been really lucky.”

Indeed, compared with other helicopter sectors, such as medevac and offshore operations, ENG enjoys an exemplary safety record. “ENG usually has a very low accident rate,” said Jack Drake, acting director of safety for the Helicopter Association International (HAI). According to the HAI database, ENG averages one fatal accident per year.

NBPA’s Wallace, who flies for Channel 4 in Dallas, said, “I was proud to stand up at the HAI annual convention last year and note that we had not had a fatal accident in two years.” Wallace said that most ENG accidents occur during ferry or repositioning flights, and he surmised that when they do crash in the line of duty they
receive disproportionate news coverage. He pointed to the 2004 crash of a WNBC AStar onto a Brooklyn rooftop, an event broadcast live by helicopters from competing stations.

Wallace said that voluntary agreements between stations in the same market that provide for filming from different altitudes and sectors has improved safety, as has the advent of a new generation of camera equipment with better range and higher-resolution optics. “We can actually fly 500 feet higher now and get a better picture.”

Having a skilled cameraman aboard to operate the complex ENG equipment and provide “another set of eyes out the window” also enhances safety, Wallace said. However, he commented that using pilot/reporters was not unsafe. “I’m a pilot first. If I have to stop talking to the studio to talk to another aircraft or ATC, then that is what I do. I don’t see a large problem with regard to safety, and I hope that the government will not overreact to this tragic accident. This kind of thing has never happened before.”