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Ariz. news helicopter covering police pursuit collide, crash


July 28, 2007
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Ariz. news helicopter covering police pursuit collide, crash

Ariz. reporters cover their own tragedy

By John Faherty, The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX, Ariz. — In a calm, steady voice, the pilot from Channel 15's helicopter asked a question that revealed just how confusing and dangerous covering a police chase from the air can be.

It was moments before Friday's midair crash that killed four people, and pilot Craig Smith wanted to know the exact location of Channel 3's helicopter.

Only his voice could be heard:

"Where's 3?"

"Like how far? Oh, jeez."

"3, I'm right over you. 15's right over you."

"Oh, jeez."

At 12:47 p.m., the sound of metal hitting metal was heard over the air at Channel 15 (KNXV), and the live signal from the helicopter went to static.

Both helicopters fell hard and burst into flames at the park near Central Avenue and Indian School Road.

Smith and photographer Rick Krolak died, as did the pilot from Channel 3 (KTVK), Scott Bowerbank, and photographer Jim Cox. Anchors at both stations went from narrating a police chase to tearfully chronicling the deaths of their colleagues.

On a clear and warm day at lunchtime, there were many witnesses to the crash.

Larry Sweet, 43, had an appointment at the VA hospital nearby.

"I looked up just as the two helicopters collided," he said. "Everything disintegrated. There's pieces of both of them all over the place. It was one of the most devastating (things) I've seen with my two eyes."

Bob Smith of Phoenix was about 100 yards away from the crash having a picnic in the park with his construction workers.

"I heard the pop. They (the helicopters) exploded and went down. Debris is all over the park," Smith said. "Black smoke is everywhere."

The incident began at 12:06 p.m. with a 911 call reporting a stolen vehicle.

Police spotted the truck, a heavy-duty "dually" with a large tank mounted on the back, a short time later at Seventh and Jefferson streets.

The driver then rammed a police vehicle.

As television helicopters followed the pursuit and broadcast live coverage, the driver jumped from the truck and stole another vehicle. Even after the helicopters crashed, the chase continued, winding up nearly 10 miles away in a home on the 8700 block of West Encanto Boulevard.

Police surrounded the home, and shortly after 3 p.m., they arrested Christopher Jones, 23.

When asked if the suspect could be held criminally liable for the deaths of the men on the two aircraft, Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris said forcefully, "Yes."

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said there are rules governing airspace and communications when news pilots desire to fly in the same airspace.

On Friday afternoon, air-traffic control cleared five news helicopters and one police chopper to enter the same airspace.

Once cleared, individual pilots used a dedicated helicopter frequency to communicate and maintain separation from other aircraft.

Gregor said that, within an hour of the crash, FAA officials went over recorded transmissions from air-traffic control and determined all pilots were correctly following procedure.

The helicopters involved in the crash appear to be the same model, a single-engine helicopter called an Aerospatiale built by Eurocopter.

The helicopter is used in a wide range of industries including forestry, fire service, news gathering, mining, sightseeing, law enforcement and border patrol among others.

The company's website says the helicopter's "flexibility and low acquisition cost has made it a very sought-after helicopter." The helicopter appears to have a good safety record based on information from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Even in ideal circumstances, the job of a news helicopter pilot can seem impossibly complex.

Both pilots had many years of flying experience. Bowerbank was a flight instructor and flew fixed-wing aircraft as well. Smith was a part of his station's morning program and was known for flying with his dog, Molly, a West Highland white terrier. The dog was not aboard Friday.

Even with years of experience, covering a breaking news story can be difficult.

"It can be very demanding," Wayne Baker said of piloting a news helicopter.

Baker is an air ambulance operator, backup pilot for 12 News and former Mesa police helicopter pilot.

"You're talking to Phoenix tower, you're talking to other helicopters on the talk channel, listening to your police scanner, listening to your station as they communicate to the photographer in the back," he said. "There's a lot going on up there."

That job is fairly manageable when helicopters are hovering over a stationary scene like a house fire.

"But when you're in pursuit, you're constantly moving to get the photograph. There's more of a requirement to let everyone know where you are. Obviously, today that didn't happen."

Daniel Schwarzbach, a Houston police pilot and president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, said pilots keeping track of each other can be the hardest thing to do, because there is so much they cannot see with blind spots above, below and behind them.

"You lose 'em for a second and you're asking, 'Where are you? I can't see you.. .. OK, you got me. I got you.' That's not uncommon when you're working and trying to keep track of four or five other aircraft."

The last fatal Valley crash involving a news helicopter occurred on July 5, 1991, when Mike Nuetzman, a helicopter pilot for radio station KTAR-AM, was apparently spooked by a bottle rocket that flashed by him as he flew low.

He lost control and crashed just before he was to deliver a traffic report.

News anchors reporting on Friday's crash on KTVK appeared emotionally shaken.

"It is very much a brotherhood, like firefighters," said Scott Clifton, CBS 5 helicopter pilot, of the Valley news pilots.

Daniel Clark, photojournalist with Channel 12, was in the air following the car chase when his pilot said two media helicopters were down.

"We all know each other out there," Clark said. "These pilots they all know each other. They all have that common bond of helicopter pilots. Everyone knows everybody. Even though we are all competitors, there's also that strong brotherhood there," Clark said.

"When something like this happens, it devastates everyone of us."

Contributing: Republic reporters Lindsey Collom, Becky Bartkowski, Kelsey Hazlewood, Chelsea Schneider, Jennifer Price, Jennifer Kitson, Tiffany Tcheng, Dennis Wagner, Robert Anglen and Jay Jenkins and 12 News also contributed to the report. 

Copyright 2007 USA Today

Full story: Ariz. news helicopter covering police pursuit collide, crash





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