By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009
The National Transportation Safety Board yesterday called for new limits on helicopter pilots who report for television, following an investigation into the cause of a deadly collision between two Arizona news helicopters in July 2007.
The collision occurred as a group of TV news helicopters were jockeying for position above a police car chase in Phoenix. On the ground, the fleeing suspect was in the process of abandoning one car and taking control of another. Maneuvering to capture the events, two helicopters crashed, killing their pilots and two cameramen.
At the time of the accident, there were four TV news helicopters and a single police helicopter in the area, with a fifth news helicopter on the way. The crash involved helicopters representing the KTVK-TV and KNXV-TV news stations.
At a public hearing yesterday, NTSB members and senior staff members at the agency said the pilots were juggling a number of tasks at the time, which likely contributed to the accident.
The pilots were responsible for monitoring multiple radios: air-to-air communication with other pilots in the area, communication with the air traffic control system, a line back to the television station and on-board intercoms connecting them with cameramen.
They also were monitoring police communication and watching the action on the ground to deliver play-by-play narration in live reports -- all while flying the aircraft. At the hearing, officials described the cockpit environment as "task saturation."
The NTSB voted unanimously to recommend that operators of news helicopters assign the reporting role to someone other than the flying pilot, unless the operator can prove that a pilot's workload is "manageable under all conditions."
"We need to put the obligation on them to show how combining [the two roles] are safe," said Deborah Hersman, an agency board member. "This accident is an early warning sign for us -- a canary in the coal mine. It showed that if these pilots got distracted, then other pilots could get distracted."
NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker agreed, saying the public demand for sky reports should not outweigh aviation safety concerns.
As many as 140 news helicopters operate in the United States, the NTSB estimates. Some work under informal procedures and agreements with the Federal Aviation Administration. The NTSB also recommended stronger rules governing how far news helicopters should stay from one another. And the agency called for flickering blades, anti-collision lights, and warning advisory systems specially tailored to helicopters. The recommendations now go to the FAA for action.
The role of the pilot-reporter has been debated within the industry for years. Pilots have served the dual functions for extra pay and on-air recognition, the NTSB says.
Hersman said she worried that competition for the best shots could lead to future accidents.
"I don' t think those four lives in Arizona were worth watching that cops-and-robbers drama," she said.