Newscopters back on the air after frustrating restrictions

Aviation International News » January 2002
May 29, 2008, 10:01 AM

It took a deadly act of terrorism to knock the nation’s fleet of electronic newsgathering (ENG) helicopters out of the air and, ironically, it required another disaster to restore many, if not all of them, to flight status. For helicopter users that make their living performing airborne journalism, the past four months have been the time for an uphill battle for one of the most visible (and controversial) of rotorcraft uses.

With the smoke still climbing skyward from the ruins of the World Trade Center and Pentagon on the afternoon of September 11, ENG helicopters, along with everything else with wings or rotors in U.S. airspace, were ordered to get on the ground and stay there. In the weeks to follow, however, nearly everything with wings and most things with rotors were eventually allowed to return to their revenue-generating routine.

Except the ENG aircraft, nearly all of which are rotorcraft and nearly all of which operate under Part 91. But not all operate under this FAR, and therein lies part of our story.

Weeks after the national airspace was open to nearly every sort of aerial operation, ENG flights were still banned in airspace in more than 30 major cities nationwide, lumped in together with banner towers and blimps. In many cities, student pilots could fly in the same enhanced Class B (ECB) airspace barred to traffic watch and news helicopters. “This was after Part 135 operators had been cleared to cross ECBs,” recalled New York area ENG on-air reporter John Del Giorno, who, together with pilot Jim Smith, crews NewsCopter 7, a Bell LongRanger operated for WABC-TV by St. Louis-based Helicopters Inc. For ENG aircraft, the revised airspace rules contained an even more galling restriction. “While we could fly through the New York ECB, we were banned from taking pictures,” recalled Del Giorno.

This restriction found its roots in the hair-splitting of the initial no-flight restrictions that began almost immediately, most visibly in both New York and Dallas, with enterprising operators pressed to cover the story of the century quickly finding loopholes in the regs and the FAA, prompted by the National Security Council (NSC), moving just as quickly to close them.

WABC was among the first to test the post-September 11 regulatory waters. Anxious to get aerial pictures of the World Trade Center site, NewsCopter 7 nevertheless stayed barred from the area until the restriction on en route Part 135 operations through the ECB surrounding JFK  Airport was lifted, an action that took place roughly a week after the disaster. NewsCopter 7’s crew filed a point-to-point flight plan from their base at Linden Airport, just a few miles south of Newark (N.J.) International Airport, to Republic Airport at Farmingdale, N.Y. “It was a completely legitimate passenger flight,” Del Giorno recalled, “and we filed point-to-point for full compliance.”

Of course, it was a happy coincidence for NewsCopter 7 that the flight passed well within zoom-lens range of the smoking ruins of lower Manhattan. Without deviating from their approved flight path, the crew of NewsCopter 7 shot some of the first air-to-ground footage of the 16 acres of devastation. The video was recorded to tape on board the LongRanger and was not broadcast live. The tape was edited and broadcast later that same day. That last action presented yet another loophole for federal enforcers to try to plug. Does the strict legal definition of “ENG operations” require live broadcast from within the aircraft? Some say yes; the federal government, so far, has said no.

NewsCopter 7 made over-Manhattan flights on September 18 and 19. At the end of the second day’s flying, the NewsCopter 7 crew of Smith and Del Giorno were met on arrival at Linden by a displeased delegation from the FAA.

As it turned out, members of the NSC had seen the Ground Zero video and contacted the FAA, telling it to make sure such video was not shot again. “The FAA was oblivious to the obvious loopholes in the regs,” said Del Giorno. “Under the rules as issued, a student pilot with a camcorder could have shot, legally, what we were banned from shooting.”

What the rules had created was a de facto ban on commercial aerial photography over 30 ECBs nationwide, a ban that, journalism professional groups began to grumble, presented an infringement of the First Amendment. For their part, Del Giorno and Smith have been presented with letters from the FAA vowing future, as yet undetermined, enforcement action.

If You Burn It, They Will Come

Nationwide, ENG operators began to make do by conducting operations outside banned ECB airspace. Sadly for most, those restricted areas covered the congested urban areas that generate the most news and surface traffic congestion, the daily bread-and-butter of ENG reportage. “Covering a traffic accident 30 miles away from the center of the city isn’t really as relevant as one in the city center,” said one ENG pilot. “What we had was a situation ready for a confrontation.”

That confrontation came on November 8, when a man stole a semi truck loaded with lumber in a suburb of Dallas and then led police on a three-hour chase throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. As the heavily loaded semi careened through traffic, cars were smashed and some of the semi’s tires blew. Sparks from the bare wheel rims gouged the pavement, setting the truck’s load of lumber ablaze.

In short, it was a burning truck/police chase, an event tailor-made for airborne news coverage. Four local ENG helicopters joined in covering the wild “Road Warrior” style melee, a chase the FAA believes took at least some of those helicopters into the 30-mi ECB surrounding Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

For their part, three of the four ENG operators involved each has a different defense of its actions. KXAS/Channel 5 said its helicopter was not in the ECB, was only following the truck, not shooting video from it, and was therefore not in violation.

KTVT claimed it was operating as a point-to-point Part 135 operation and was therefore exempt. WFAA maintained that it was careful to track the truck from outside the ECB while the vehicle was within it, approaching it only after it had left the ECB. FDFW/Channel 4, which covered most of the chase and transmitted live video that CNN relayed nationwide, has not yet commented on what it did.

“We think it’s a clear violation,” said FAA spokesman John Clabes. Letters were sent to all four news operations, and the matter is still under investigation.

With news directors and constitutional law experts building up the pressure to lift the ban on ENG ops, tragedy struck again. On November 12, American Airlines Flight 587, an Airbus A300 with 265 passengers and crew aboard, went out of control over Long Island for reasons now under investigation, and smashed into a residential neighborhood at Belle Harbor on Rockaway Beach, Long Island. The crash site was well within the JFK ECB, and New York’s newscam helicopters were barred from covering what became a groundbound media frenzy. Deprived of overhead photography, both TV viewers and emergency response coordinators had to settle for a blurry, long-distance image provided to all the networks from a camera fixed atop the Empire State Building nearly 20 mi away.

Ironically, Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-TV News Directors Association (RTNDA), was in New York on November 12 lobbying for the lifting of airborne newsgathering restrictions. She watched the smoke clouds billow in the distance. “I couldn’t help but feel that the coverage would have been vastly improved with an aerial perspective. New York City Mayor Giuliani spoke of the dramatic view he had of the accident scene when he arrived by helicopter. It’s unfortunate that the public had no access to the same vantage point.”

Not only the public was disappointed by the lack of an airborne view of yet another world-class disaster in New York. Emergency officials spoke quietly among themselves about the unforeseen ill effects of the ENG ban (traffic snarls, the loss of rapid-response “eye in the sky” intelligence) and within a few days cracks began to appear in the lids of many ECBs nationwide. Not surprisingly, one of the first to yield to official pressure was New York’s. Just before the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, the FAA began granting special waivers for news organizations on a case-by-case basis.

Everyone contacted for this article conceded that the chain of command for approval of new airspace access leads up through the federal government to the very top–the National Security Council (NSC) and that this is the body that has been making the final decisions on airspace access.

The National Security Council is chaired by the President. Its regular attendees (those required by law and otherwise) are the Vice President, the secretary of state, the secretary of the treasury, the secretary of defense, and the assistant to the President for national security affairs. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is the statutory military advisor to the NSC, and the director of central intelligence is the intelligence advisor. The chief of staff to the President, counsel to the President, and the assistant to the President for economic policy are invited to attend any NSC meeting. The attorney general and the director of the Office of Management and Budget are invited to attend meetings pertaining to their responsibilities. The heads of other executive departments and agencies, as well as other senior officials, are invited to attend meetings of the NSC when appropriate.

This is the organization that has been calling the shots on airspace restriction and appears to have made the decision to open the skies to ENG operations. The fact that so many restrictions are still in effect regarding ENG would seem to indicate that the NSC was not of one mind on the subject.

No ‘Cruise for News’

Under the terms of the waivers, aircraft are assigned specific transponder codes, radio callsigns and are banned from hovering, circling, “loitering” and “unpredictable flight paths,” in the words of the rules. Waiver forms, precise wording and more information on the process can be found at www.rtnda.org/.

In an interesting shift from the federal government’s initial lack of interest in getting ENG aircraft back into the air, under a provision of the recently passed Aviation and Transportation Security Act news and traffic flying can return to normal if the FAA fails to act on the waiver application within 30 days.

But not everything is back to normal, as pointed out by Mike Silva, a Denver ENG pilot with 20 years of flying for local CBS affiliate KCNC: “From what we’ve been able to figure from our links with the membership of the National Broadcast Pilots Association [NBPA] and RTNDA, enforcement of these new rules varies widely from region to region and even from FSDO to FSDO. According to a strict interpretation, we’re not allowed to ‘cruise for news,’ which is the major way we get our stories. It’s like telling the police that they can’t patrol neighborhoods or even respond to calls, but can only drive in straight lines through neighborhoods on pre-arranged schedules. Well, this just isn’t the way we do business and it’s a mistake to pass it off as a ‘return to normal.’ It isn’t. We have to keep pushing.”

Even Air Tours Are Back in the Air

Given New York City’s traditionally antagonistic attitude toward helicopter activity, the news that Liberty Helicopter, Manhattan’s largest air-tour operator, is back in the air comes as a surprise. Liberty has been granted a special waiver to operate tours over much of the Manhattan area of what used to be called the Hudson River Exclusion, a strip of VFR airspace that before September 11 extended along the length of that river’s frontage with New York City and extended up to an altitude of 1,100 ft.

Passengers boarding Liberty’s fleet of American Eurocopter AStars must provide a valid photo ID, check in all bags with security, bring no handbags or carryons to the flight and walk through a metal detector. Moreover, (and especially painful for an air-tour operator) no video or regular cameras are allowed on the aircraft (although, ever the entrepreneur, Liberty will sell air tourists pre-screened one-roll throwaway cameras with which to preserve their memories).

ENG pros caution that this waiver process is more than a return to the ratings war between rival TV stations. “We make a valuable contribution to public safety,” argued Del Giorno. “We’re not just there to chase fugitives. We provide traffic watch services over some of the worst traffic in the world. And we’re usually the first on-scene with the ability to let others, including law enforcement and city officials, see what’s going on in those critical early moments. Nowadays, ENG operations are more valuable than ever.”

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