WASHINGTON — Federal safety investigators said Wednesday the pilots of two Phoenix news helicopters had so many distractions they lost track of each other, resulting in a midair crash that killed four.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators said the pilots in the July 2007 crash drifted too close together because they were focused on watching a police car chase and reporting the event for their television stations.
Investigators told board members the pilots were also listening to police radios, coordinating coverage with news producers, talking with photographers on board, talking to other helicopter pilots by radio and trying to visually keep track of other helicopters nearby. The two pilots and the news photographers on board were killed when the helicopters collided and then plunged into a city park.
There were four news helicopters and a police helicopter following the chase at the time of the crash.
It was the only midair crash of two news helicopters in the United States, but board member Kitty Higgins said at least 18 other incidents in which two news helicopters nearly collided in midair have been reported to a voluntary aviation safety reporting database managed by NASA.
"We've had a lot of near misses, if that's a fair way to characterize it," Higgins said. She noted those reports were filed by pilots and others who were concerned enough to file a report.
"We don't really know how many other near misses may be out there," she said.
Board member Debbie Hersman questioned whether TV news helicopter pilots can safely report events like car chases while also flying the helicopter. She said TV stations should be required to show how pilots can both report the news and fly safely or be forced to separate those functions.
One of the Phoenix stations now has a second pilot on board to do the reporting, while the other no longer has pilots report as they fly, investigators said.
"I think we need to put the obligation on them (the television news industry) to show how combining these responsibilities is safe and, if necessary, to assign the reporting duties to someone else. But if you can demonstrate it can be done safely, that's fine," Hersman said.
"This accident is an early warning sign for us — it's the canary in the coal mine," Hersman said. "It showed very clearly these pilots got distracted, and if they got distracted other pilots could get distracted. ... I don't think those four lives lost in Arizona were worth that cops-and-robbers drama."
The board is meeting to determine the probable cause of the crash and make safety recommendations.