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From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 22.

From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 22.

When postal workers in Denver found pudding mix spilling from an envelope last November, they thought it might be anthrax. A nearby hospital admitted four of them for decontamination.

It sounded like news to Byron Grandy, the news director for KMGH/Channel 7. And so, Grady contacted his helicopter pilot, Rich Westra, to investigate.

On a typical day, it would have been fine for Westra to fly over Denver’s Swedish Hospital. But due to post-Sept. 11 restrictions on newsgathering helicopters, Westra soon found himself under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration, accused of entering airspace deemed off-limits to reporters.

“The problem is, the FAA seems to think we can’t take pictures,” Westra said afterward. “It’s the newsgathering process that is being contested.”

For months, pilots of newsgathering helicopters struggled with an ongoing ban limiting their flights over the nation’s largest cities. After two months of halted flights for newsgathering and traffic watches, many helicopters returned to the air on a limited basis. On Dec. 19, the FAA restored general aviation access to airspace above the nation’s 30 largest metropolitan areas.

“This reinforces our commitment to getting America back to business while maintaining the highest standards of safety and security,” said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta in announcing the lifting of the restrictions.

But it was a long time coming. Too long, say broadcast journalists.

“I think we still don’t understand why it took so long to lift these restrictions on these type of flights,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. “We have never received a good explanation why news and traffic flights were considered more dangerous than other flights let back into the air.”

Cochran notes the fate of the 15-year-old student pilot in Florida who died Jan. 5 after ramming a stolen plane into a bank building.

“Those kind of flight students were being allowed to fly at a time when news helicopters were grounded,” she said.

Broadcasters got some relief in late November when the FAA began issuing waivers for chopper flights in major urban centers. But even when pilots obtained waivers from the FAA, their operations were limited. In order to fly legally in enhanced class B airspace — the official designation for the sky surrounding the nation’s 30 largest cities — the pilots and any journalists in the air with them were required to submit their names, Social Security numbers and citizenship.

To comply with those restrictions, pilots had to conduct point-to-point flights. Newsgathering helicopters couldn’t circle, hover or loiter, techniques commonly employed by broadcasters dependent on live shots for television news.

Glenn Rizner, vice president of operations at the industry group Helicopter Association International, said the FAA never offered a definition of “loitering,” leaving pilots to hammer out agreements individually with air traffic controllers.

At a congressional subcommittee hearing in October, FAA spokesman Stephen Brown told House members that national security agencies were behind the FAA decision to limit helicopters’ flight patterns even after most general aviation returned to normal flying in October.

“The rationale for some of the decisions we’ve made, which comes from the National Security Council, is censored information,” Brown said at the hearing for the House Subcommittee on Aviation on Oct. 17. The Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Secret Service also helped sculpt the restrictions for helicopter flights in enhanced class B airspace, he said.

Responding to repeated attempts from pilots and broadcasters alike to get a meatier explanation, the agency said the unpredictable flight pattern of news helicopters and their tendency to hover posed national security concerns.

That left broadcasters without a key tool in reporting traffic, major accidents and weather emergencies. After American Airlines flight 587 on Nov. 12 crashed into a neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., reporters found it difficult to reach the site without helicopters.

And there were other incidents that unfolded without the benefit of a newsgathering eye in the sky: an explosion in Atlanta; tornados near the University of Maryland campus; a chemical spill and explosion in Dallas.

“We had many, many examples of stories that would have been more meaningful to the audience if they had been allowed to have access to aerial coverage,” Cochran said. “Countless incidents where there were stories that happened that unnecessarily frightened people because our helicopters couldn’t go up in the air.” — GR, PT