The Digital Journalist
Look Up, Down, and Around to Live
October 2007

On Friday, July 27, five news helicopters in Phoenix scrambled to cover a car chase.

KNXV/Channel 15's chopper, piloted by Craig Smith with photographer Rick Krolak, took off from their Scottsdale, Ariz., base. A few minutes later KTVK/Channel 3's pilot, Scott Bowerbank, took off from Scottsdale with photographer Jim Cox. Within minutes there were five news helicopters in the air, all fighting for shots of the chase, all at the same 1,100 feet. Most of the helicopters were broadcasting live to their stations.

Within seconds, two of the Aérospatiale Eurocopter AS350 B2s from Channels 3 and 15 collided in midair and plummeted towards the ground, killing all aboard.

Mark Bell has been the safety advocate for the National Press Photographers Association for more than two decades. For much of this time he has led a tireless crusade to halt a steady stream of electrocutions that have killed scores of TV technicians when their truck masts hit high-tension lines as they prepared to broadcast a piece. Mark called his crusade "LOOK UP AND LIVE." It has been a success.

Only one technician has been killed in the past three years. But as the death toll has receded on the ground, it is rising in the air.

A vast majority of local TV stations have at least one helicopter, which is manned for eight hours a day. The "scramble" to get into the air to cover the slightest news story exceeds the response time of almost all military units, comparable to the local fire department. Except they are not driving fire trucks.

Once aloft, their managers vector them into news story locations.

They are all in constant radio contact with the other helicopters in the air, and are monitoring police radio. However, generally there is only one police helicopter in the air, which maintains an observational role. The news choppers, on the other hand, are "attack birds." They are going in for the shot – the images the station wants to lead the 6 o'clock news.

Unfortunately they are all maneuvering for exactly the same airspace, just as photographers on the ground jostle for the right angle on a news event.

These pilots are generally very good. The definition of a helicopter pilot is someone who is able to simultaneously walk and chew gum. Like video itself, there are a tremendous number of sequences and skills that have to all come into play in the matter of seconds.

Flying a fixed-wing plane, on the other hand, is much easier. You file a flight plan, take off, set the autopilot and land on schedule. Helicopters, by nature, require much more rigorous skills. You have vertical controls, horizontal controls, pitch speeds for the rotors, and in the news business you are flying low level. You don't have Air Traffic Control (ATC). You are under Visual Flight Rules (VFR). It is see and be seen, while moving at 150 miles an hour. Last of all, helicopters do not glide and are incapable of flight and have little control without rotors being 100% operational and responsive. Planes glide; choppers drop.

For an experienced pilot this is all in the line of business. But in the case of the Phoenix accident both pilots, besides flying their aircrafts, were both doing live on-air reports to their stations. Channel 15's Craig Smith was live on the air as photojournalist Krolak rolled on the chase. His last words on the air were "Okay, he's out! Now it's a foot chase … now he's in another vehicle … Okay doors open … police …" and at that moment the station heard the rendering of metal, and Smith exclaiming, "Oh, Jeez!"

In the next few seconds the Channel 15 and Channel 3 choppers fell to Earth.

Mark Bell says, "There have been about one news chopper crash per year for the last 20 years. They are right up there with Medevacs, traffic and security aircraft. But this was the first midair collision, but there have been countless near misses."

The problem is ever more news choppers chasing ever more trivial events, while multitasking the people who fly the machines.

"The industry is teetering on the edge," Bell says. "The rush to coverage is the road to hell."

There is no doubt that the situation is caused by economic concerns at TV stations.

According to Bell, "The ultimate helicopter in the mind of a budget-savvy news director is something that can go anywhere, see everything and have a good-looking, well-spoken human as a pilot."

For most of the industry, the loss of these two aircraft was a cost of doing business.

There is a general dynamic that if these people are crazy enough to do this stuff, fine. They lead the news. The problem is that these crashes do not happen in a vacuum. When tons of burning metal hit the ground, innocent people can get killed.

This nearly happened in Florida and New York in the past two years.

Pilot Leroy Tatum, formerly of KWTV, had "the" shot of the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City right after it happened. He was able to get up in the air before the TFR, Temporary Flight Restriction, would have kept him much further away. He can be described as a guy with "The Right Stuff." He was a great "go-to" guy. Tatum walked away from his career because the pressures of TV news versus the risks of flying just didn't make sense to him.

Many pilots agree that doing on-air reporting while flying in congested air space is inherently dangerous. "I'm surprised this didn't happen 20 years ago," said one.

But what bothers these pilot/journalists the most is that nobody seems to care about the pressure they are under.

"I am profoundly disappointed," said Bell. "In the days and weeks following the Phoenix crash, the NAB (the National Association of Broadcasters) and RTNDA (Radio Television News Directors Assn.) did not come out with a pledge to anyone who would listen, that the industry would work on rules to prevent a repeat of the Phoenix crash. So, some smart guy in government may come up with a 'plan' for regulating our industry in yet another domain, not because they are better at it, but we're just showing we're waiting for them to invent our business safety guidelines. This isn't rocket science, nor are the lives of our co-workers worth altering, or losing, because of preventable accidents. Let's invent and establish our own pool rules to prevent intensity-density issues."

It's time to stop the madness.