US National Transportation Safety Board moots 10 rules for news-gathering helicopters

Tuesday, February 3, 2009, 19:16 by Aviation Correspondent

The United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has proposed 10 rules for news gathering helicopters.

This follows the NTSB completing its investigation into the mid-air crash in 2008 of two news gathering helicopters over Phoenix, Arizona, the United States, in which four people had died.

The United States National Transportation Safety Board – the independent US government agency that is responsible for investigating accidents involving aviation, highway, marine, pipelines, and railroads – has suggested that “pilots focus on flying and let someone else do the news reporting.”

The mid-air collision occurred when the electronic news gathering (ENG) helicopters of two stations collided and caught fire when crews from several television stations were covering a police chase. Those who lost their lives in the accident were KTVK’s pilot-reporter Scott Bowerbank and photographer Jim Cox as well as KNXV’s pilot-reporter Craig Smith and photographer Rick Krolack.

However, no one on the ground was hurt. It was perhaps for the first time that two news gathering aircraft of television channels collided in the United States while covering a news story.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations will now go to the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which could adopt new rules that apply to all news gathering helicopters across the United States.

Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board, said in a press release that the agency’s investigation had revealed that the last time the two pilots coordinated their helicopters’ positions or intentions to each other was about four minutes before the collision. Moreover, according to Rosenker, when the accident took place, the pilots were reporting “the unfolding events on the ground, which diverted their attention away from other tasks such as maintaining their respective helicopter’s stated position and altitude and scanning the area for potential collision hazards.”

He stressed that a pilot’s first and primary responsibility is to operate the aircraft in a safe manner. “Assigning someone else, other than the flying pilot, to perform the reporting duties in electronic news gathering operations and improved technology to assist pilots in distinguishing between the shape of airborne objects operating below them and the surrounding terrain will prevent accidents like this from occurring again,” the NTSB’s acting chairman added.

In a report, the NTSB said that its investigation had determined that the probable cause of the accident was the failure on the part of both pilots to see and avoid the other helicopter. Adding to this failure was the pilots’ responsibility to do reporting as well as visual tracking duties to support their station’s ENG operation.

The NTSB report concluded that accident was the result of “lack of formal procedures for Phoenix-area ENG pilots to follow while covering news from the air.”

It was as a consequence of the investigation held into the mid-air collision of the two news gathering helicopters over Phoenix that the National Transportation Safety Board proposed the 10 recommendations, which would now be forwarded to the Federal Aviation Administration for potential action.