Phoenix ENG midair spurs reforms

 - October 7, 2008, 11:23 AM

A fatal midair between two television news helicopters in Phoenix last year has prompted better communications and procedures within the local helicopter community and could spur nationwide reforms, including ending the practice of pilots acting as reporters while flying. 

The television news business has always been competitive, but perhaps nowhere is it more so than during an adrenaline-laden police car chase, covered live by multiple television news helicopters in a major metropolitan market. One such chase took place in Phoenix on July 27 last year, and electronic newsgathering (ENG) helicopters from several television stations were covering the story. Two of those helicopters collided in midair as the pilot/reporters were broadcasting.

Five minutes before the Eurocopter AS 350B2s from Channels 3 and 15 collided, the pilot/reporters had temporarily lost track of each other, according to documents recently released by the NTSB. Channel 15 pilot/reporter Craig Smith got on the radio and asked, “Where’s three? Like how far? Oh geez. Three, I’m right over you. Fifteen is right over you.”

But the pressure was on to maneuver for the optimum camera angle. Two minutes after that transmission, the Channel 3 and 15 helicopters were jockeying for
a better position. At 12:45 p.m., both pilot/reporters went live.

One minute later, the two helicopters collided and wreckage from both fell into a city park and burned. The pilot/reporters and their cameramen were killed. There were no injuries on the ground, but debris was strewn over a half-mile area.

Witnesses on the ground indicated that the Channel 3 helicopter was “relatively stationary,” while the “Channel 15 helicopter was maneuvering when the collision occurred.”

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. Channel 3’s AStar was a 1995 model owned by the parent company of Channel 3.

Voluntary Changes Implemented
The crash rattled the local Phoenix helicopter community and provided the impetus for new voluntary policies and procedures locally that could be adopted nationwide.  
Channel 3 now dispatches its helicopter with two pilots, one to fly and the other to act as a reporter, and has hired former Phoenix Police Dept. pilots as part-time back-ups.

The annual safety meeting of television helicopter crews is now held quarterly and includes other area flight crews from law enforcement, EMS and the U.S. Forest Service Aviation Group.

Guidelines have been established for dispute resolution in the event ENG pilots have an issue with the flying of one of their peers from another station. The four-stage procedure calls for pilots to discuss and to try and resolve the issue between themselves; to notify other pilots of the issue and resolution via e-mail; to call the news director of the competing television station if the issue cannot be resolved; and, beyond that, to call the FAA.

On scene, there is more air-to-air talking between helicopters and more frequent and positive position call-outs. When helicopters are static (hovering) they do not move until they announce and all other helicopters acknowledge. In addition, there are heightened “see and avoid” reporting responsibilities for newscopter pilots.

Additional suggestions under consideration include painting main and tail rotor blades with high-visibility paint; installation of LED anti-collision strobes; improved position lights; and additional support from the Helicopter Association International (HAI). In the wake of the crash, HAI has reactivated its ENG working group. Additionally, the National Broadcast Pilots Association, Radio and Television News Directors Association, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the National Press Photographers Association have agreed to cooperate in the drafting of national guidelines for helicopter ENG operations.