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Helicopter ban in wake of attacks frustrates broadcast journalists

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  1. Newsgathering

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Sep 21, 2001    

Helicopter ban in wake of attacks frustrates broadcast journalists

  • Television, radio broadcasters question why federal aviation officials maintain airspace restrictions on small aircraft, leaving news choppers and planes on the ground.

When more than 35,000 Minnesotans gathered at the Capitol in St. Paul to honor victims of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Scott Lipon had hoped to use footage from the KSTP/Channel 5 chopper to give viewers the full scope of the event.

But the helicopter was grounded because of Federal Aviation Administration restrictions forbidding the flight of such aircraft.

And KSTP and other stations and newspapers had to resort to a pool photographer hoisted in a fire truck’s cherry picker to get a shot of 5,000 high school students forming an enormous U.S. flag on a field.

“And we still didn’t get that good of an angle,” said Lipon, KSTP’s news director.

This nationwide ban on certain small aircraft, including those used in news reporting, frustrates broadcasters. Like Lipon, many news directors use helicopters and small planes to get access to difficult shots and the outer reaches of their stations’ coverage areas.

The Federal Aviation Administration shut down the entire American airspace for several days after the attacks, a precaution to stave off any other hijacking or sky-bombing attempts from terrorists. The agency gradually lifted some restrictions but continues to maintain a ban on the flights of many small aircraft, including those used for “traffic watch flight” and “news reporting” operations.

Specifically, current restrictions forbid flights of small aircraft in Class B space — the designation of the most congested airspace over metropolitan centers. The FAA also imposes a ban of flights over stadiums and amphitheaters but recently lifted various restrictions over gliders, balloons and ultralight aircraft.

Hank Price, a spokesman for the FAA, cited “national security” as justification for the continued bans but declined to go into specifics about security issues or restrictions on helicopters, small planes or news flights.

But a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said news organizations have not been singled out. Nearly all small aircraft are grounded.

“The good news is, things are happening very rapidly,” said Keith Mordoff, senior vice president of communications for the group. “I think even more restrictions will be lifted by the end of the day and over the weekend. I don’t know how news reporting fits into that, but there’s a good possibility that news operation will fall into the categories with fewer airspace restrictions.”

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said members of her group question why the ban continues.

“Many are deeply disturbed by this unprecedented action which limits their ability to serve their communities because they are not able to use news helicopters or other aircraft,” Cochran wrote in a letter sent today to the FAA and the Department of Transportation. “This ban on news aircraft takes away one of the most important newsgathering tools stations use to serve the public.”

Cochran said the government has failed to demonstrate why it has let some aircraft take to the skies while leaving news-oriented ones on the ground. She said, too, that officials haven’t shown why they continue to deny access for journalists.

Cochran said she heard from several news directors in Arizona and New Mexico, in particular, who said they are frustrated that they can’t use aircraft to get to the more remote areas of their coverage areas.

“This comes at a time when people are watching their stations more than ever, looking for news and wanting to be reassured that everything is safe,” Cochran said.

Lipon of KSTP said he’s frustrated but adds that he’s reluctant to ask for special treatment from the government.

“Once you ask to be treated differently or favorably, you can’t defend yourself against treatment that is unfavorable,” Lipon said. “And I don’t’ believe we are as vital, in the sense of urgency as a hospital helicopter. I wouldn’t presume to put us in that category.”


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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