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A deadly toll: WBTV helicopter crash is one of many tragedies in aerial newsgathering

helicopter crash collage
Since television and radio stations started using aircraft in the 1960s, at least 70 pilots and journalists have been killed in crashes in the U.S., according to a WFAE review of news stories.

While filming a police chase of a carjacker 15 years ago, two TV news helicopters collided in midair near downtown Phoenix. Four people died.

The crash happened live on TV, shocking viewers.

Kim Fatica, who worked in TV news for nearly three decades in Ohio, was part of a National Transportation Safety Board safety review after the Phoenix crash. It recommended that helicopter news pilots only focus on flying — not reporting.

In the aftermath of last month’s fatal crash of a WBTV news helicopter near Interstate 77, Fatica said news directors need to decide whether the risk and expense of routinely operating helicopters outweigh the reward of exciting aerial shots.

“I think it’s good to do that and assess whether the risk is worth the reward,” he said. “Is it great to have your helicopter up to have that car accident, or motor vehicle accident, or are you going to get that fire that everyone is going to remember? That’s hard to say. That’s something the leaders in the newsroom have to assess and think about.”

Since television and radio stations started using aircraft in the 1960s, at least 70 pilots and journalists have been killed in crashes in the U.S., according to a WFAE review of news stories. Almost all were in helicopters.

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New York Times
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Two news helicopters collided over Phoenix in 2007.

Some are infamous: A Sky6 helicopter crash in Miami in 2000 that killed two. A Seattle TV news helicopter crash that killed two and seriously injured another in 2014 near the Space Needle.

And a 1991 crash of a WTVD news helicopter near Raleigh killed three and injured one. The crew was returning to the station after covering a high school football game.

Since the Phoenix collision in 2007, there have been at least seven deaths in the U.S. due to TV news helicopter crashes. That includes the deaths of pilot Chip Tayag and meteorologist Jason Myers in the WBTV crash just before Thanksgiving.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report Tuesday about the crash. It said the two were on a training flight for Myers to practice newsgathering from the air over “a simulated news scene.” The control tower at Charlotte Douglas Airport did not receive a distress call before the chopper went down about five minutes after taking off from WBTV.

Those seven fatalities are a decline in the number of deaths compared with the '80s and '90s.

It’s unclear why.

Is that because of safety precautions put in place after Phoenix?

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
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CMPD chief Johnny Jennings speaks to the media about last month's WBTV helicopter crash.

Or is it because a number of TV stations have grounded their choppers because they cost too much? In some cities, TV news stations all share one helicopter.

“A helicopter program is expensive to operate,” Fatica said. “It costs a lot of money, from the maintenance, to the person to fly it, to a place to store it. It costs a news entity quite a bit of money.”

Are helicopters necessary in the age of drones?

Retired newspaper executive Alan Mutter called for TV stations to ground their choppers after the Phoenix crash.

“The point I made then and the point I made today, there is seldom sufficient news value to have helicopters chasing around the community,” he said.

He said with technology today — like GPS for traffic reports — there just isn’t much need for choppers.

“Normal journalism does not require helicopters,” he said. “Just driving around in a helicopter to prove you can drive around in a helicopter doesn’t make sense journalistically or economically.”

Mutter and Fatica said helicopters are too often used for low-impact stories, such as this summer’s coverage in Charlotte of an hourslong, high-speed chase. Several people were injured, none severely, and no one was killed. Both WBTV and WSOC covered that live from the sky.

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Ely Portillo/WFAE
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A memorial has been placed near Interstate 77 where a WBTV helicopter crashed before Thanksgiving.

It’s difficult to determine the exact level of risk of flying in a helicopter when compared to driving. The FAA measures helicopter fatalities by flight hours, while driving is usually calculated by fatalities by miles driven or by the population.

But when you do a rough comparison translating miles driven to the number of hours driven, flying in a helicopter is about 20 times as dangerous as driving.

And the WBTV helicopter that crashed, a Robinson44, has had more than twice as many fatal accidents than the average helicopter, according to a 2018 Los Angeles Times investigation.

In a statement to WFAE, California-based Robinson Helicopter Company said it “absolutely disagrees” with that newspaper analysis and said the helicopter, the most popular in the world, has been extensively tested and certified.

WBTV declined an interview with WFAE and instead released a statement saying it will work with the NTSB during the investigation.

Casey Clark is the news director at Queen City News in Charlotte, WJZY, a TV station that doesn’t have a helicopter. He says he doesn’t need a chopper because of a new technology: drones.

He said the station sends a drone in the sky “probably every day.”

The station now has four. And he said the FAA is considering allowing longer-range drones that would allow stations to fly them for, say, 60 miles.

“Sometimes we put the drone up for beauty stuff, sometimes we put it up for breaking news,” he said.

He worked at Seattle’s KOMO-TV shortly before the news helicopter crash in 2014 that killed two and injured one.

“It was a horrendous accident where they crashed right at the base of the Space Needle and the helicopter burst into flames.”

He says on the day of the WBTV helicopter accident, he had a drone flying over the crash site.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.