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Media and Crisis Management

News helicopter crashes – What’s going on?

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Potpourri: News helicopter crashes – What’s going on?From archives

What to make of recent helicopter crashes?  As I write this, a news chopper just crash-landed in Texas.  All survived.  Days ago, two news helicopters in Phoenix collided and killed four people.

I write about this because it resonates. I rode choppers for three years as a reporter and had close calls.  My stepfather was a US Navy helicopter instructor who nearly crashed because of student error.  It doesn’t help that a B-29 crash killed my father before my birth.  So, air accidents in general disturb me and chopper crashes probably bother many in this area.

In 1984, a local news helicopter in my home area was trying to rescue a dying worker pinned on a tower.  The tail rotor hit the structure, downed the craft and killed two on board.

In 1986, former local reporter Joe Spencer, an acquaintance, died in a crash while working for ABC news.

Two AirCare helicopters from an area hospital went down in 1986 and 1994 killing eight people.

While I worked at a St. Louis TV station in the early eighties, a competing station’s helicopter covering a flood sped by my chopper in the opposite direction in low visibility about 100 feet away.  Only a railroad track below served as a visual marker to keep us off a collision course.

Once, after getting an exclusive interview, I boarded a chopper to race back for a primetime show in a raging blizzard.

In another case, while reporting on the family of an Iranian hostage we landed in the home’s backyard amidst power lines, trees, other homes, at night, and during snow. Scary.

Meantime, a radio traffic reporter tried to take off while his landing gear was still tied down.  His helicopter flipped into the Mississippi River but he survived.

All have been on my mind since the Phoenix collision which appears a case of pilots losing track of each other.  Google helicopter crashes and you will be astonished at the frequency of them.  Most involve human error in the cockpit or occasionally the control tower.

That doesn’t surprise me. As I look back on my flights 25 years ago they were exhilarating.  I also remember the different flying styles of the pilots.

All were Vietnam veterans and gutsy but some were more cautious.   For example, when covering a traffic accident some flew low and slow.  Others: high and fast.  In those days before gyro-stabilized cameras: the lower the chopper the better the video.  You were closer.  But there was risk.  Altitude and speed could mean survival in an emergency. If an engine failed at low altitude with little forward motion the chopper dropped like a brick.  Flying higher and faster, if an engine stopped the pilot still had altitude, time and momentum to dive into the wind and hopefully catch enough air across the main rotor blades to make a hard landing at a safe location.

Truth be told, when I was young I liked the pilots who hot-dogged it.  We’d swoop into events, report and race back home for dinner.  It was a kick and we got the best pictures.  Conservative pilots were no fun.  Now, older, I realize who was right: the careful ones.  A 1991 Flight Safety Foundation newsletter said the helicopter has unique capabilities that present an infinite variety of piloting situations, but “…is unforgiving of the pilot who has a complacent attitude…”

My heart goes out to all who have had losses from these airborne tools upon which we rely more than ever.  Helicopters are magnificent machines that demand equally magnificent aviators and ground support.

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