Dallas, TX –
To get an idea of what it's like to be a reporter pilot for a television station, picture driving at 100 miles an hour in heavy traffic on Central Expressway while talking on the phone, holding a conversation with a passenger in the car and reading your e-mail.
It sounds like an accident waiting to happen, and it did recently over the skies of Phoenix. Six helicopters, five from local television stations and a police helicopter, began following a high-speed chase through the city. Two of the news helicopters collided in mid-air, sending both crashing to the ground in a public park. The pilot reporters and photographers on board were killed. Luckily no one was hurt on the ground.
The Federal Aviation Administration has long recognized that distracted pilots make mistakes. That's why in 1981 it put in place a rule that prohibits airplane pilots from performing non-essential duties or activities while the aircraft is below 10,000 feet. The sterile cockpit rule was put in place because research showed pilots who were distracted from flying sometimes made fatal mistakes. There is no similar rule sterile cockpit rule for helicopter pilots.
According to a Flight Safety Foundation study of helicopters involved in mid-air collisions every investigation cited flight crew or pilot error as the probable cause of the accident.
The Phoenix crash illustrated a serious and some would say alarming trend in television news. Today many stations are assigning their helicopter pilots the additional task of covering stories. If this weren't such a serious safety issue it could be a Dilbert cartoon on productivity in the workplace.
A pilot reporter is simultaneously coordinating his aircraft's position with the photographer operating the helicopter's camera, talking to a producer or assignment editor at the television station, communicating with air traffic control and nearby pilots and monitoring his chopper's fuel supply and internal systems. On top of all this he is trying to report the story.
All these competing demands mean the pilot reporter can do little more than describe what viewers are already seeing on their screens. But a reporter in the helicopter or studio can be collecting information from other sources and can focus on getting the facts right without other distractions.
Eliminating the dangerous multi-tasking that requires helicopter pilots to act as reporters would improve safety for everyone.
And safety would be further enhanced if stations pooled their coverage, allowing one helicopter to take the lead in covering stories such as a high-speed chase and sharing the video. Even in the highly competitive news environment, local stations and networks frequently pool coverage for events where there is limited space for cameras and equipment.
The late journalist Harry Reasoner once wrote an essay expressing his admiration for helicopter pilots. He wrote, "A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other. And if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance the helicopter stops flying immediately and disastrously."
Like Harry Reasoner I have tremendous respect for helicopter pilots. They are skilled professionals. Those who aspire to be reporters should do so, but not while they are at the controls. Television stations should not make reporting part of a helicopter pilot's job description. We would all be safer if pilots focused on flying and let reporters in the studio or in the air report the story.
David Margulies is a Dallas business owner and former broadcast journalist.
If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.