By Donald R. Winslow
News Photographer magazine
PACOIMA, CA – Following the 2007 mid-air collision and fatal crash of two news helicopters in Phoenix that left four journalists dead, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration started to take a closer look at whether news helicopter operations and news helicopter crew practices were safe, or whether the government needed to establish more federal regulations and guidelines.
One of the key practices investigators looked at – which was discovered to be a major factor in the Phoenix crash – was that of pilots doing live on-air reporting while also operating the aircraft. Investigators at the Phoenix crash have also examined how news helicopter pilots operate while on a story when there are multiple aircraft operating above the same news scene, or when there are groups of helicopters following a police chase that's taking place on the ground.
Today the NTSB had a meeting in Washington to discuss their upcoming final accident report on the Phoenix crash, and they said that the two pilots, who were both broadcasting live on the air at the time they collided, "had too many distractions" and lost track of each other.
"The probable cause of this accident was both pilots' failure to see and avoid the other helicopter," NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker said. "Contributing to this failure was the pilots' responsibilities to perform reporting and visual tracking duties to support their station's electronic news gathering operations." (See today's news story).
While being mindful of safety, after the Phoenix crash news directors and journalism organizations were also concerned about any new FAA regulations that might be created following today's NTSB crash findings, regulations that could add new restraints on how helicopters can or cannot not be used to pursue news, which might then also become a First Amendment issue.
Within the community of those who practice electronic news gathering using helicopters (referred to as HENG), some industry leaders have been talking about putting together a set of enhanced safety guidelines – with the participation and input of federal investigators – and working to get the practices endorsed and in place before the FAA or legislators feel that it's necessary to do it through some additional government action.
NTSB lead accident investigator Howard Plagens asked the National Press Photographers Association last summer to participate in the fact-finding and informal talks, and for NPPA to offer the participation of some its more experienced HENG members to take part in the discussions as the new safety guidelines were being discussed.
Kim Fatica, former operations manager for WOIO-TV in Cleveland, and Lt. Col. Anthony Bolante, a former Seattle-based photojournalist who led America's helicopter air operations in the war in Afghanistan until last year, and who is now the Air Corps Flight Operaitons Mentor for the Afghanistan National Army and working the flight line in Kabul, were asked by NPPA to make recommendations on its behalf to the NTSB.
Fatica wrote a HENG safety manual for use at his former station in Ohio, and station owner Raycom had adopted the manual company-wide for use by all stations who operate news helicopters. Bolante, an Army aviator and officer who was responsible for safety and training of military helicopter combat crews, had also written a safety operation manual for his program. Together, the they offered their guidelines and experiences to NTSB's Plagens, who said that he was grateful for NPPA's participation and that pieces of their operations manuals were being used as templates as the gropu drew up their own new HENG safety guidelines.
Partly in response to this new HENG safety initiative, the National Broadcast Pilots Association has re-named itself the National E-N-G Helicopter Association and they have opened up their membership to include more than just pilots. NEHA, as they now call themselves, is endorsing a large set of enhanced safety measures for helicopter news operations, and these new guidelines are currently under consideration for adoption by the Helicopter Association International.
If approved by the HAI, the new guidelines will be released in February, NEHA says, along with their recommendation that pilot/reporters who appear live on camera in the sky should not do so unless accompanied by a co-pilot or a trained observer on board to help avoid collisions.
Additional safety "upgrades," as the group called it, include "contemporary" methods of assessing risk factors before launching ENG helicopters, minimum experience levels for pilots, comprehensive annual recurrent training, safe weather minimums, tracking procedures, and other safety enhancements. Their recommendations are packaged in a 22-page manual titled "ENG Aviation Safety Guidelines."
NEHA leaders announced they would also like for the FAA to publish their new safety measures in the FAA's Aeronautical Information Manual as the "officially recommended best practices" for the ENG industry.
"We expect HAI's new ENG Aviation Safety Guidelines to be given final approval shortly by HAI's board," NEHA secretary Bob Martin said. "The NTSB is directly participating in our safety improvement work, and the agency has recommended that the pertinent aspects of these new guidelines be published by the FAA as 'best practices' for our industry. We feel this is a great endorsement of this year-long project and look forward to promoting these enhancements at all ENG operations across the country."
One unexpected factor that may have an impact on HENG operational safety is the economy. Helicopters eat up a huge chuck of a news department's annual budget, and in several markets there will be fewer helicopters circling over news scenes. In some markets, such as Chicago and Philadelphia and now Denver as well – one of the news helicopter capitols over the years – stations have worked out arrangements to pool their aerial coverage.
NEHA is also inviting reporters, photographers, engineers, and mechanics to join the organization and to help them promote the organization's primary task, which they say is the promotion and support of safety in airborne electronic news gathering. NEHA says a full membership is available without cost to anyone who is involved in ENG aviation operations.
"The best way for everyone to be active participants in enhancing safety is by providing an organization that brings together all the professionals who work in, and with, ENG helicopters," NEHA president Larry Welk said. Welk is also the president of Angel City Air in Pacoima, CA.
NEHA will have a national meeting in February in Anaheim, CA, during HAI's annual Heli-Expo. The event is February 21, 2009, at the Anaheim Convention Center. The meeting has scheduled a two-hour roundtable discussion about ENG aviation safety at 3:00 p.m. PST, and NEHA says that there is no cost to attend.