WASHINGTON, DC – The National Transportation Safety Board yesterday released a series of individual reports to show what they have been studying in the 13 months since two news helicopters collided mid-air over Phoenix, AZ, killing the two pilots and two photojournalists on board, but the reports do not assign a cause for the crash or determine blame.
The NTSB's probable cause report, which will set the cause and blame, has not been completed and may not be out for more than another month, the agency said.
But even though the NTSB has not established who was at fault, a lawsuit claiming the blame has been filed by a lawyer who is representing a minor son of one of the victims.
In early August a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Phoenix blames one of the pilots for the crash, along with the company he worked for. Attorneys for Colton Krolak, the 15-year-old son of Channel 15 photojournalist Rick Krolak, alledge that pilot Channel 3 KNXV-TV's pilot, Craig Smith, was "careless, reckless, and grossly negligent" while flying the news helicopter.
The NTSB reports released yesterday detail how both Smith, flying KNXV-TV's helicopter and Scott Bowerbank, flying Channel 3 KTVK-TV's helicopter, two of five helicopters covering a police chase on the ground over downtown Phoenix, were looking for each other, talked on the radio to each other, and had even spotted each other, before they went back to covering the police chase.
A little less than five minutes later the two helicopters collided, both crashing to the ground in balls of fire into Steele Indian School Park. Killed in the July 27, 2007, crash were Bowerbank and Channel 3 photojournalist Jim Cox, and Smith and Channel 15 photojournalist Krolak.
Investigators yesterday released transcripts of the aircrafts' voice recorders, transcripts of air traffic controllers talking to all the aircraft in the air at the time, studies of the helicopter pilots' line of sight in the minutes leading up to the crash, studies using the video from the helicopters - and shadows - to determine their positions in the air before the crash, and eye-witness accounts of the collision (many of which were conflicting and showed that witnesses frequently confused the two aircraft, or misunderstood what they saw). Toxicology reports on the pilots were negative, and showed no impairment.
Other reports released addressed weather conditions, showed daily logs, along with FAA forms that show that the air traffic control system was functioning normally, FAA staff statements, and a report that showed that the air traffic controllers performed their required duties during the time of the crash.
The voice transcripts from the two helicopters show that both crews were intensely concentrating on covering the chase taking place on the ground beneath them, and that both of the pilots were on the air and reporting live to their newscasts at the time of the collision.
The nature of the conversations indicate that neither pilot knew they were in imminent danger or had any indication that they were about to collide.
At 12:43 p.m. Phoenix time on that day, both helicopters were covering the chase and Channel 15 was airing Smith's report, but Channel 3 was still broadcasting a cooking show. Bowerbank and Cox were communicating with the Channel 3, urging them to go live with the coverage.
By 12:45 both helicopters were reporting live coverage from above the chase.
At 12:46:18 the transmission from Channel 3's Bowerbank ends in the middle of a sentence. At the same time the video signal from Channel 15's helicopter begins to break up, lasting for a few more seconds before ending. The voice recorder captured the sound of the helicopter breaking up, warning horns sounding, and screams from the two journalists.
The wrongful death lawsuit names pilot Smith and his employer, U.S. Helicopter Inc., as being responsible for photojournalist Krolak's death. In the suit the NTSB's preliminary report is cited, which states that the ongoing investigation indicates that Channel 3's helicopter piloted by Bowerbank was "relatively stationary" at the time of the collision and that Channel 15's helicopter, piloted by Smith, was maneuvering.
Photojournalist Krolak's father, Casimir Krolak, told The Arizona Republic that his son's other two sons, Tony and Eric Krolak, also intend to file wrongful death suits.
The suit against Smith and U.S. Helicopters Inc. was filed by attorney Charles Brewer, a lawyer who specializes in wrongful death aviation cases and who is a certified jet pilot.
In the months after the crash there was much discussion about the safety issues brought up by the crash, including having multiple helicopters chasing a police chase and having pilots reporting live while flying the aircraft.
In October 2007, the National Press Photographers Association came out as being opposed to having news helicopter pilots reporting live while flying the craft, citing industry safety standards and experts who say the practice puts the aircraft, crew, passengers, and those on the ground beneath them at a heightened and unnecessary risk.
In addition to raising questions about the safety and sensibility of having helicopter pilots do both flying and reporting duties simultaneously, the crash brought attention to the absence of rules and regulations governing the separation of aircraft in such circumstances.
In the Phoenix market on Channel 12 has a news helicopter pilot whose sole duties are flying the aircraft.
Since the crash, Channel 3 says that its helicopters now fly with a second pilot, who also serves as an observer.
Other safety precautions taken by news helicopter crews in Phoenix after the crash include painting a highly-visible stripe pattern on the helicopters' rotors (so they can be seen more clearly from above), and bright anti-collision strobe lights. In safety meetings held after the crash, Phoenix market pilots also decided they would communicate with each other more often, reporting their positions, and hold frequent pilot meetings to discuss safety issues.
The NTSB reports were released just a few weeks after the family of photojournalist Cox in Austin, TX, launched the James Alan Cox Foundation for Student Photographers. In memory of their son and brother, the Foundation will provide financial support to student photographers of high school and college age who demonstrate interest in video news photography along with talent and financial need. Cox's parents, Alan G. and Barbara Cox, along with the photographer's sisters, Leslie Cox and Jennifer Cox-Bracksieck, will each year pick students to receive grants for equipment or tuition.
In Phoenix, PFG Construction and other business have erected a memorial at the crash site in Steele Indian School Park to honor the four journalists killed in the accident.