News pilots must work together and police themselves as they jockey for position while covering stories like the car chase in Phoenix that took a terrible turn Friday when two television helicopters collided, killing four people.
Safety is always more important than the story, said Chip Paige, a pilot with KNBC in Los Angeles, who says he has covered hundreds of car chases and other incidents where the air was thick with news crews.
“The flying comes first and the shot comes second,” said Paige. “Once we are off the ground the competitive element goes away and the aircraft are very much working with each other.”
Federal regulations allow news helicopters into an area to cover incidents like police chases. It is up to the pilots of the helicopters to tend to their own safety, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Los Angeles.
The helicopter pilots communicate among themselves on a channel that is not monitored by the FAA, he said.
At the time of the crash Friday there were six helicopters in the air following the pursuit of a carjacking suspect – one Phoenix police helicopter and five from local news stations, Gregor said.
There are no specific requirements as to how far off the ground helicopters must hover, or on their spacing, he said.
There were 162 civilian helicopter crashes nationwide in 2006, according to the Helicopter Association International, which compiles its information from the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board. Those crashes killed 42 people nationwide. The statistics do not indicate the number of crashes involving news helicopters.
Tony D’Astoli, a video photographer for the Tribune who worked at a news station in Atlanta for seven years, said safety is the top priority for television news pilots.
“I’d be shocked if it turned out someone was jockeying for position,” said D’Astoli, who freelanced for Channel 15 for about six weeks before going to work at the Tribune.
Paige said that when a news story draws helicopters from multiple stations to a small area, the pilots are in constant communication on an open radio channel, and are careful to keep a safe distance. A photographer is on board to shoot video, and the pilot’s only job is to fly, Paige said.
Air speeds vary, depending on the nature of the story. The distance maintained between helicopters can vary depending on things like the weather, Paige said.
“There’s not much room for flexibility,” he said. “Airplanes can trade a little paint and sometimes they both keep flying. A helicopter trades paint with someone, it’s probably not going to keep flying. There’s way too many moving parts.”
The extreme mobility of helicopters makes them ideal for chasing unpredictable events on the ground, said George Williams of Williams Aviation Consultants, a former FAA senior executive now based in Queen Creek. But they can also be vulnerable in the air, particularly when there is pressure to get in close to a story, he said.
“When you’re talking about news helicopters, everybody wants to be in the same place at the same time,” Williams said.
It is that competitive pressure that puts news crews at risk when covering a story from the air, said Craig Allen, an associate professor of television news at ASU who has studied how TV stations weigh the risks in getting prized video.
While news directors and pilots say safety is paramount, both express a willingness to take risks when given scenarios in which the payoff is better video or an exclusive, Allen said. Television executives balked when asked about whether they would accept a pool arrangement wherein one helicopter crew would video an event and share the images with others, said Allen, who spent 12 years in the television news business.
“When the chips are down and competition is involved, or that dazzling moment of video is possible, they will disregard safety and go for it,” Allen said. “The idea of safety falls away and getting that shot is the most important thing.”