July 28, 2007

A Tragedy Waiting To Happen

An entire television genre has generated from the overhead helicopter camera. The now-familiar tracking shot of live police chases from the air gets featured in reality shows and breaking news alerts on news channels. The love affair between viewers and helicopter shots started in earnest with OJ Simpson's Ford Bronco chase and has grown steadily since then.

Unfortunately, the desire to compete for those scenes has resulted in four deaths in Phoenix:

Two news helicopters covering a police chase on live television collided and crashed to the ground today, killing all four people on board in a plunge that viewers saw as a jumble of spinning, broken images.

Both helicopters went down in a park in central Phoenix and caught fire. No one on the ground was hurt. ...

KNXV reporter Craig Smith, who was among the dead, was reporting live as police chased a man driving a construction truck who had fled a traffic stop. The man was driving erratically, hitting several cars and driving on the sidewalk at times.

Police had blown the truck's tires, and the man eventually parked it, then carjacked another vehicle nearby.

It's remarkable, given the numerous opportunities over the last few years, that this has not happened before now. To that extent, it shows the professionalism of the pilot corps, a point that the Associated Press makes in its report. The pilots have to watch both the action on the street as well as the crowd of other helicopters that now track these chases, a situation that calls for every ounce of talent and training these men and women have.

However, what pressing story did these four people die to cover? Someone fled a traffic stop and the police engaged in a chase. The eventually arrested the man after he crashed his truck and hijacked another vehicle. That's pretty standard fare, even for these spectacles. It's a story that had little impact outside of sensationalism, and at least three news stations put helicopters in the air to get breathless live coverage of it.

The remaining helicopter got live coverage of the crash -- and the Los Angeles Times hosts the video of that on its website.

Some stories really do require that kind of coverage. When I lived in Los Angeles, the North Hollywood Bank of America got robbed by two men armed to the teeth and protected by body armor. It resulted in a lengthy shootout in which the LAPD was woefully outgunned. They had to run to a local gun store -- a customer of ours -- and borrow heavy-duty weaponry and bullets to finally stop the pair. That was a news story that the helicopter shots made much more clear and understandable -- and one in which pilots had more than just air traffic putting their lives at risk, too.

Most of what these helicopters cover, though, are just standard police chases that may get encouraged by the notoriety provided by the breaking-news reports and reality shows they spawn. Local news stations should reconsider their impulses to send pilots and cameramen into dangerous situations for no real news purpose other than voyeurism.

UPDATE: Joe Gandelman has links to the video reporting at The Moderate Voice.


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Comments (20)

Posted by GarandFan | July 28, 2007 9:39 AM

Ed, you're right, it is voyerism. The "news" value is zip.

Posted by Larry J | July 28, 2007 9:50 AM

Given the "if it bleeds, it leads" mindset of so many news outlets, this crash was inevitable. Four people are dead covering a crap story. Talk about dying for nothing.

Posted by bulbasaur | July 28, 2007 10:05 AM

It was surreal. I watched the video of the local feed from one of the helicopters that crashed, and you could hear the collision, and the warning siren as the helicopter failed and fell to the ground, then the signal is lost. The shot goes back to the newsreader anchorette who says hmm, now sure what that was..., and then ...we'll keep you posted as this police chase unfolds. I understand she wasn't aware the helicopter had crashed, but for God's sake, it was obvious something was seriously wrong.

I remember in 1986 when KARE-11 posted live video of a tornado on the ground in Brooklyn Park during the 5:00 news. It made national news and the helicopter pilot, Max Mesmer, was immortalized. I don't think it's the blood and guts aspect that hooks us. It's the sense that there's a real world out there, outside our little solipsistic consciousness. A shot of reality wakes us up with what Aristotle called the desire to understand, and while some might become curious vow to study meteorology, or to contemplate the might of God, the rest of us go back to sleep.

In my mind, the is what Flannery O'Connor's fiction was all about. She could have easily written yesterday's events as a short story. It ought to cause us to contemplate the reality of evil in the world.

Posted by NahnCee | July 28, 2007 10:31 AM

We're being asked to mourn the deaths of bubble-headed "journalists" who have been busily feeding us lies and trying to subvert the country for the past decade or two?

I don't think so.

Good riddance, except for maybe the pilots.

Posted by Gwedd | July 28, 2007 10:33 AM


What bothered me was Shepard Smith's tirade on Fox about all the emails they were getting on this story. Most of the emailers were saying that it was the crew's fault (and, in fact, it was) and that it was time to stop these sorts of stories.

Smith went off talking about how it was NEWS and they NEEDED to cover these things for the public safety, etc, and how dare anyone complain about it, etc.

Well, the News comapies are as much to blame as the pilots here. Years ago, when the technology became available, they stopped having a reporter in the aircraft with the pilot and cameraman. It was a cost-saving measure. The stations figured that the pilot could also do the reporting, so 9 times out of 10, he ends up watching a video monitor of what the cameraman is shooting, just every now and then sticking his head up to do a quick scan of the area and his instruments.

It's an accident waiting to happen, and it finally did. As a former helicopter crewman with over 5,000 hours, I regret the loss of these men. However, this was absolutely pilot error, absolutely preventable, the same as if they had hit power lines or flown into a high-rise. They were NOT paying attention, and it cost them their lives.

Complacency is the most deadly sin for pilots. In this case, they were complacent, caught up in the chase, figuring thigs would be fine becuse they had always been fine. However, their inattention the cardinal rule of aviation:safety, did them in.

I truly do feel sorry for their families and survivors, but this accident needn't have happened. Maybe now the news teams will have a wake-up call about this stuff, but they probably won't. I can only imagine the outrage, however, if these helicopters had gone down on a school full of kids.


Posted by Douglas S. | July 28, 2007 10:42 AM

The part of this that surprised me was that the pilot was also the on-air commentator giving the play-by-play as events happened. A cameraman was also on board each aircraft, but he apparently only operated the camera and the pilot was the narrator.

You may never get TV stations to give up on covering car chases, but this strikes me as a shift that can and should be made by networks across the country: The pilot needs to be focused on flying, not on the action on the ground. Since you already have a second person on board the aircraft, let him be the one to provide live action coverage.

Posted by amr | July 28, 2007 10:49 AM

I have been waiting for this to happen since the OJ slow speed chase. It is a shame that four decent people had to die in an irrational pursuit for a story. I have heard very little in the past day about the responsibility of the media in this incident. While the thief should have his butt put away for many years, charging him for the copter crashes is ludicrous. Several times in the past I heard there were reports that the police have had to order media copters away from a crime scene because they were interfering with police work and endangering the police copter and personnel. Apparently no lessons were learned from those incidents. On the face of it, five copters covering a routine stolen car police chase was ridiculous. If they have to cover these events why not have one copter do the feed for all stations and rotate the station doing the coverage. This would cut costs, increase safety and still give the public the titillating views it seems to want. BTW, the large fuel use to cover this seems to fly in the face of the media calling for reduced fuel consumption to save the environment. They seem unable to practice what they preach

Posted by AnonymousDrivel | July 28, 2007 11:30 AM

Couldn't agree more, Ed.

This type of sensationalism must stop. It may ease up a bit in the immediate aftermath of this particular event, but the drive to capture such imagery is too tempting for the "news." After the appropriate statements to comfort the families of the deceased have been made, after the legalistic memos have been distributed to remind staff to be more careful, after rationalizing their past action to justify the tragedy of a wholly avoidable event, they'll return to the same behavior. It's their addiction. And it's profitable. That is of course the bottom line.

The news industry is even more addicted to this type of coverage than the viewers. For one thing the newspeople and producers like to rubberneck as much or more than anyone. For another there's still money to be made and public voyeurism will not change, so neither will business that finds opportunity to exploit human nature.

After a brief interlude, perhaps even none at all, the industry will be right back at it. And the public will watch. And another tragedy just like this one will repeat.

Posted by Larry Sheldon | July 28, 2007 11:34 AM

It has happened before. See stories about Captain Max Schumacher of KMPC (and KTLA?).

what puzzles me is this--after that accident I thought there were rules established (some FAR, some "gentlemen's") that required that the pilot fly the craft, somebody else watch the show (avigate, navigate, communicate as time allows).

Included in what I thought was done was that police would fly one set of altitudes, news another. And that certain types would stay a certain distance away (NOTAMed Restricted areas?) I forget. that was long ago.

Posted by Greg | July 28, 2007 11:40 AM

Captain, my apologies, but you say "The remaining helicopter got live coverage of the crash..." The fact is that all five of the local news helicopters were on the scene before the crash. If there was a police helicopter there, that would have made six. The area where the helicopters went down is right near the heart of Phoenix, with high rise buildings less than a quarter of a mile away, two high schools within a half mile, the VA hospital abuts the park the aircraft crashed in. That is entirely too many aircraft in a space over too many people. It was just luck that they came down in the one open spot in the area. There is no reason why five helicopters would be required to cover one stolen pickup truck. The Fox news reporter, in one of the surviving choppers reported that besides flying, reporting and all of that, the pilot has five different radios that have to be monitored... if driving while talking on a cell phone should be against the law, this should be as well.

Posted by Hartley | July 28, 2007 11:43 AM

Hi Capt'n,

I've had dealings with media helicopters for many years through my involvement with Search & Rescue and more recently with the Civil Air Patrol.
Individually, these pilots are often (but not always) good folks, and they always seemed interested in helping - but they are also under a lot of pressure to "bring home the story" (first, of course) and make a name for themselves. Many of them seem convinced of two things: one, their own invincibility - flying in nasty conditions and places with impunity; and two, that their presence is somehow a boon to all mankind - that the stories they file are somehow "important" to everyone, not just sensationalism.
Like other commentors, I am frankly surprised this is the first such tragedy. Here in Phoenix, every traffic mess, "police situation" or other attractive nuisance is accompanied by a cloud of media helos hovering above.

Posted by dave_d | July 28, 2007 11:48 AM

What I can't believe is that the thief might actually face charges related to the crash. (I mean seriously it's not as though he made them follow him.)

Posted by Larry J | July 28, 2007 12:16 PM

A year or so ago, there was a show called "SOS Coast Guard Rescue." It showed how these quiet professionals go about their jobs saving lives often putting their own on the line. They had a lot of coverage from Hurricane Katrina (the Coast Guard rescued over 30,000 people there). I remember their efforts at avoing other helicopters in the then uncontrolled airspace over New Orleans. Many of those helicopters were media flights that accomplished little other than burning some jet fuel.

Those Coast Guardsmen (and women) had an important job to do, as did all of the other rescuers who were trying to save lives. The media were spreading lies about the level of crime and even charges of cannabalism.

It's too bad that four people had to die for nothing yesterday in Phoenix. This was a nothing story not even worth a single helicopter's coverage (other than the police), much less several. It's fortunate that no one on the ground was hurt or killed. If the press keeps acting so stupidly, it's only a matter of time before this happens again, perhaps with worse results.

Posted by jethro | July 28, 2007 12:56 PM

I'm with you, dave_d. The perp is apparently guilty of auto theft, felony evasion, scads of moving traffic violations -- but he didn't cause the chase teams to engage in "distracted flying".

Posted by Del Dolemonte | July 28, 2007 2:24 PM

Larry J said:

"A year or so ago, there was a show called "SOS Coast Guard Rescue." It showed how these quiet professionals go about their jobs saving lives often putting their own on the line. They had a lot of coverage from Hurricane Katrina (the Coast Guard rescued over 30,000 people there)."

Of course, the objective media kept the Coast Guard's impressive Katrina rescue effort quiet, since it would have made Bush look good...

Posted by Christoph | July 28, 2007 2:37 PM

"Most of what these helicopters cover, though, are just standard police chases that may get

encouraged by the notoriety provided by the breaking-news reports and reality shows they spawn. Local news stations should reconsider their impulses to send pilots and cameramen into dangerous situations for no real news purpose other than voyeurism."

Captain Ed, I make this a part of my daily routine because you usually have your thinking brain on. ;-)

Okay, even here, I see your point.

But news outlets are a business, not a public service or military detachment.

They invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in helicopters and as much in pilots.

They're not going to let them sit their on the tarmac waiting for the next Bank of America heist. (And even then, are they to wait until their own internal intelligence service determines the helicopters are useful or are they going to scramble them just in case to get coverage while they can? The question answers itself.)

They want their capital investment to be repaid and earn a profit. That means it has to be used often. And is. For covering these types of news stories the public is interested in, traffic reports, and more.

The news provides entertainment that the market wants, not just analysis from a higher viewpoint of noteworthy tactical engagements between assailants bearing new protective devices and under-gunned police.

Yes, the helicopter crash was a tragedy. If government is going to regulate, so be it. I am sure each news outlet helicopter pilot across the country is doing an internal mental review and will resolve to be more careful.

But expecting news helicopters to be managed as if they're part of the California National Guard 163rd Air Reconnaissance Wing is unreasonable.

Posted by Amphipolis | July 28, 2007 3:06 PM

A similar incident killed PA Senator John Heinz outside Philadelphia in 1991.

Posted by Del Dolemonte | July 28, 2007 3:35 PM

In Heinz' case, a helicopter had been sent up to inspect a problem with the landing gear on his plane, and the rotor struck the underside of the plane.

They were flying over an elementary school at the time, and two first grade girls playing outside were killed along with all aboard the two aircraft.

I've been flying since the days when airlines were still using DC-3s, but you'll never get me on a helicopter.

Posted by jaeger51 | July 28, 2007 9:24 PM

I actually saw this unfold live. I was at lunch, and the chase was on local tv. The thief was driving around and around the area with three out of four tires blown out. He had apparently already rammed a police car earlier, and was being followed by numerous police cars while he sideswiped many parked cars, and drove on and off main streets endangering traffic. He eventually ran across some parked trucks at a construction site and carjacked one and drove off at a high rate of speed just as the TV copters colllided...my question is why did the Phx police allow him to keep going when he was driving on all the flat tires going maybe 20 mph? Would it have been that hard to shoot the ^&#* rather than let him run amok? Obviously he wasn't rational, there was no way he was going to escape, and he had to know that. If they would have taken him out earlier, when it became apparent he wasn't going to stop until stopped, there wouldn't have BEEN a copter crash. Hopefully he will pay for this in court.

Posted by Peacemaker | July 31, 2007 2:10 AM

A memorial fund for Jim Cox and Scott Bowerbank has been set-up at M&I Bank. Donate at any M&I Bank using the following information:
Jim Cox/Scott Bowerbank Memorial Fund
Account #: 0044336897

Flowers can be donated to 5555 N. 7th Avenue, Phoenix, AZ, 85013.


Killed on board the KTVK (Channel 3) chopper were pilot/Reporter Scott Bowerbank and photographer Jim Cox, Channel 3 reported.

"He was our best and brightest star in many ways," said KTVK 3TV chief photographer Mike Conlee.
Cox died doing what he loved most -- chasing a story from the air.
"Cox was part of the dream team, and now part of that team is lost," Conlee said.
"He was one of the greatest photographers this staff ever had," Conlee said.
But it wasn't just about the story to Cox.
"He had passion for the people he covered," Conlee said.

ABC15's helicopter Reporter Craig Smith and photographer Rick Krolak were aboard the KNXV aircraft, that station said.

God Bless and God's speed!