Kansas City
Over $1 Billion in Verdicts and Recoveries
Helicopter Pilots Must Make Own Rules
Lindsey Collom
The Arizona Republic

They take to skies when news breaks, sometimes five at a time jockeying for position.

And with no formal regulation, news helicopter pilots are left to make their own rules.

"It's like a swarm of flies," said Richard Wentworth, an aviation consultant and former National Transportation Safety Board investigator. "When everybody is trying to vie for the same amount of airspace, there is no margin for error."

The rules of the air governing helicopter traffic are a free-for-all, but experienced local pilots learn to work together.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said air-traffic controllers typically give helicopter pilots the go-ahead to enter airspace, but that's where tower communication ends. From there, pilots use a dedicated radio frequency to exchange information and maintain separation.

"It can be very demanding," said Wayne Baker, a backup pilot for 12 News.

"You're talking to Phoenix tower, you're talking to other helicopters on the talk channel, listening to your police scanner, listening to your station as they communicate to the photographer in the back," Baker said. "There's a lot going on up there."

Baker said most pilots excel at "communicating in the blind" to keep each other apprised of their location and movement without another helicopter in sight. It's easier when a cluster of choppers are hovering over a scene, he said.

"But when you're in pursuit, you're constantly moving to get the photograph," Baker said. "There's more of a requirement to let everyone know where you are."

Within an hour of the crash, Gregor said FAA officials reviewed tower transmissions and determined that all pilots followed procedure before entering airspace. What occurred after that was not known. Air-traffic control does not record communications between pilots, Gregor added.

Piecing together what happened Friday may be tough as helicopters do not carry the in-flight recorders known as "black boxes." However, the live video may provide a clue. Wentworth said investigators will likely watch video feeds from the fallen crafts as well as those of competing stations.

NTSB investigators were at Steele Indian School Park late Friday. An NTSB spokesman said preliminary results would be available within 15 days but that it would take at least a year for a complete report.

John Nance, a veteran airline captain and aviation analyst for ABC World News, said Friday's collision was an anomaly.

"What we have here is a very odd and unusual situation," Nance said. "If this were a common occurrence, we would have helicopters going down all over the country on a regular basis, and we simply don't."

Nance said pilot communication between pilots has long been successful in maintaining a safe airspace.

But attorney Gary C. Robb of Kansas City, Mo., is lobbying for more regulation.

Robb has handled several personal-injury helicopter crashes, including a 2001 crash where six people died because there was not enough separation between the aircraft and the wall of the Grand Canyon, he said.

He said that pilots must maintain minimal aircraft separation as even small movements can trigger catastrophes.

"There needs to be a FAA regulation over helicopter coverage of police chases, and we need to have a minimal separation rule," Robb said. "Until the FAA mandates a 300- or 500-foot mandatory separation (between aircraft), this is going to continue to happen again and again."

Craig Allen, an Arizona State University professor of television news, questioned the benefits of helicopter news coverage in the first place.

"It's never been clear in my mind why helicopters are where they are and do what they do," said Allen, who has researched the issue for years. "Does society gain so much from TV news helicopter coverage that it is worth these pilots, reporter and photographers being killed?"

Mark Lodato, news director for the ASU journalism school and a former Channel 15 reporter, said he lost a former colleague, Scott Bowerbank and a friend, Jim Cox, in the crash. But he said media aircraft are vital to news coverage.

"These people are out in the helicopter doing thousands of miles a year, and 99.9 percent of the time, nothing goes wrong," Lodato said. "Bottom line, the helicopter as a tool is very useful and very safe," he said.


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