Helicopter pilots: pilots, reporters, or photographers?

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Friday’s fatal news helicopter crash has newsrooms and other agencies around the country looking at their own policies. WOSU takes a look at the policies of the Columbus Police Helicopter Unit and two local TV stations.

The helicopter crash in Phoenix killed both pilots and two photographers. Both helicopters were covering a high speed chase. At least one of the pilots was describing the police chase going on below.

This scenario is not unheard of. Sometimes news helicopter pilots wear two hats – pilot and reporter. The Federal Aviation Administration does not restrict multi-tasking pilots. Once the aircraft is in the air, it’s up to the pilot to keep track of other helicopters in the area.

A Columbus Police helicopter takes off from the division’s heliport near downtown.

Lieutenant Mike Elkins heads the Columbus Police Helicopter Unit. Elkins said pilots are in touch with local air traffic control when they take off, but once the air space is cleared it’s up to them to maintain contact with other helicopters in the sky.

“We are obligated to do by regulation, under visual flight rules, is to communicate with other aircraft in the area, to announce our location, to announce our altitude,” Elkins said.

Elkins said helicopter pilots communicate to each other through Unicom – a local frequency provided by airports around the country. Plus, Elkins said there is always a designated look out when pilots are on police calls.

But what if pilots are by themselves?

Justin Green is an aviation attorney with Kreindler and Kreindler in New York, and a pilot himself. Green said while there are FAA rules restricting careless and reckless flying, there are none about how helicopter pilots are supposed to see and avoid each other.

“The safety issue is that you have pilots and cameramen looking at the ground, looking at the high speed chase, and not being able to keep the normal scan that pilots generally employ,” Green said.

Channel 4 in Columbus contracts with an outside company for its helicopter pilots. News Director Stan Sanders said their pilots’ job is to provide live pictures and audio. He said they do not act as reporters.

“So if it’s something that we’re going to have to provide coverage in the air we’ll send up a reporter,” Sanders said.

But that hasn’t always been the case at Channel 4.

“When Rob Case was our pilot, Rob would do both. But when we changed vendors, pilots are just pilots. They are not reporter pilots,” Sanders said.

Sanders said NBC 4 reviewed its helicopter policy but no changes were made.

Channel 10 helicopter pilot Terry Ault said on occasion a pilot will act as a reporter. Ault referred other questions to news director Jon Cardenas.

Cardenas called too late to be included in the story.

According to the Helicopter Association International there were 162 helicopter accidents last year – 25 resulted in fatalities.

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