Video Killed the Radio Chopper

But television keeps electronic news gathering alive

March 1, 2005

Every New York City television station has a news chopper. And they won't let you forget it, either. In 1998 the NBC affiliate, Channel 4, began running commercials showing a tail rotor and windshield, while a voice spoke of a "new Chopper 4." "There's nothing else like it," the voice promised. Then CBS affiliate Channel 2 started running commercials about its old Chopper 2, now updated with a $200,000 "Infrared Camera." The Fox affiliate, Channel 5, promoted its, um, Chopper 5 along with its look-alike High 5 (one was sky blue, the other jet-black). And ABC's Channel 7 hyped its two NewsCopter 7s (and two thumbs up for the unique name) while anchorman Bill Butell touted the channel's superior newsgathering capabilities as the pair hovered behind him in the background. Oh, yeah, the Spanish-language Telemundo, Channel 47, advertised its own chopper — which oddly enough looked like one of the NewsCopter 7s (funny, though, the N numbers and colors matched perfectly) — but I couldn't tell if the announcer admitted anything because he spoke in rapid-fire Spanish. I barely speak English.

Imagine all those choppers taking off at once, covering some sort of police action, usually — with the handcuffed suspect facedown on the ground while New York's finest gather around. It would resemble a battle scene from Apocalypse Now. Except no Wagner blaring from loudspeakers.

It isn't just New York that has news choppers either. Los Angeles is fraught with them. And even a station in Portland, Oregon, has two choppers. Two! Yes, they're in virtually every television market. Except radio — where they got their broadcasting start. And that's decidedly odd.

If Los Angeles wasn't the first city to boast of a news and traffic chopper, then it should have been. LA got its first in 1958, a year after President Eisenhower got his. Those first choppers weren't cheap, but the broadcast foot-age seemed like it: The cameraman had to perch on a skid with the camera on his shoulder, which made the picture shaky and out of focus, what with the vibration from the rotor. And so the first news helicopters found a home on the radio. It was a match made in heaven: With hundreds, maybe thousands, of square miles to cover, and just as many miles of highways jammed with traffic, a chopper could report live on the scene within a few minutes.

Things got better for television choppers, though: Along came a new camera, mounted on the airframe and stabilized by gyroscopes. And also there was a new incident. In a phrase, the low-speed chase. You remember that one featuring O. J. Simpson and a white Ford Bronco?

A little while ago I wanted to go up with one of those TV helicopter crews (mostly to log the time), so on a crisp winter morning with snow on the ground and the wind chill well below zero I left my warm apartment at 4:30 a.m. and drove out to an airfield in New Jersey to go on morning patrol with the crew of Chopper 5. Strangely enough the Eurocopter A-Star looked like night and day: One side was painted sky blue, the other was jet-black. Chopper 5 and High 5 were the same helicopter! The station had mounted a camera on both sides of the tail, and it used shots from one side for High 5 and the other side for Chopper 5. Who'd ever think that the news might be less than truthful?

With my brain reeling from that, we took off and headed into and above Manhattan at about the same time the sun popped up in the east. As a fixed-wing pilot, I didn't cotton too much to hovering, especially beside really, really tall, pointy buildings with no chance of surviving an autorotation. But it was fun being a part of covering breaking news for once, even though the biggest news we broke was a power line brought down by a truck that had been unloading a Dumpster. (It wasn't important enough to air, even.) Most of the time we took "beauty shots" — ducks flapping around in a Jersey pond, the sunrise, the city, the traffic, the Dumpster....

And we even got to watch some of the competition out patrolling. First there was Chopper 2, pacing us about a mile away. "Who's that?" I asked. (Not because I was really curious, but more because I wanted to alert them to traffic without acting like I was alerting them to traffic. No need to insult anyone's scanning.)

"That's 'Chopper 2 — With Infrared Camera!'" the pilot and the cameraman mocked in unison. A few minutes later we switched to the Jersey side, where a disabled vehicle caused rubbernecking to plug the freeway. Hovering nearby was NewsCopter 7. One of them, at least. It was a slow news day — the rubbernecking incident ranked at the top, and so we received permission from the producer to head back to base.

But I got such a kick out of the pilot and cameraman's reaction to Chopper 2 that I called up the station.

Me: "Tell me about this Infrared Camera."

WCBS spokeswoman: "It's bringing back unprecedented pictures that allow you to see things we wouldn't be able to see without it."

Me: "What kind of scoops has it brought your station?"

Her: "I can't recall any. But we're able to see things that other cameras would not be able to."

Me: "Such as?"

Her: "Interestingly enough we've helped firefighters fight fires. Once the firemen wanted to go up and see the vulnerable parts of the fire."

Me: "So did you take them up?"

Her: "They didn't do it, but they expressed the desire to."

WCBS probably didn't want to break the tenet that forbids ethical reporters from helping the government. Can you blame them? How could its matriarch, CBS, possibly survive such a scandal?

(Soon after my flight a backlash of sorts started. Channel 5, whose commercials bragged about "New York's air superiority," began running a commercial that said, "Fox 5: More news, less chopper." Some High 5, eh?)

In the past year a few news pilots have started complaining that helicopter reporting is a dying art form. Rather, helicopter radio reporting. TV stations tend to bring in bigger bucks, which allows them to support a fleet of helicopters (especially in Channel 7's case) and a two- or three-person crew. But radio is a different breed of cat altogether. Radio stations simply don't pull in as much money — despite the plethora of ads — so supporting a dedicated helicopter can be a real luxury. Cheaper video cameras are blanketing many highways and interchanges, which makes it easier for some intern sitting behind a desk to monitor road traffic. And in the not-too-distant future unmanned drones developed for the military will be able to orbit overhead and broadcast live feeds while traffic backs up from accidents or rubbernecking. On top of all that, the reporter-pilot doing radio reporting has to effectively describe any other action taking place ("OK, Bill, two motorists have stepped out of their cars on the highway...the one in a blue suit just took a swing at the other in... suit..."), which loses something without an accompanying video feed.

The few dedicated radio helicopters left, then, tend to do double-duty, reporting for several stations every day just to make ends meet, or splitting their time between television and radio. Take KABC television in Los Angeles. KABC's pilot-reporter Scott Reiff also goes live on radio station KLOS, both of which are owned by Disney. A Helinet Aviation Services helicopter in San Francisco also reports for TV and radio, as does another of its choppers in Washington, D.C.

If you need more proof, look no further than Westwood One, which owns just about every radio station in the free world. "[Radio is] how we got started in the business," says Pat LaPlatney, a senior vice president. Westwood began operating helicopters in the 1970s, and now has more than 40 flying in markets across the nation. And Westwood is putting up new helicopters nearly every day. But more than 90 percent of them are equipped for TV broadcast. "Generally TV is the reason we're putting more up," LaPlatney adds. TV choppers are more expensive, but they're more in demand.

Helinet, based in Van Nuys, California, is one of the largest suppliers of ENG (electronic news gathering) helicopters in the United States. According to pilot operations manager Kris Kelley, Helinet has helicopters in 25 different TV markets — and not one single dedicated radio helicopter. "Helicopter ENG news has become more and more a big integrated part of news gathering," she explains. "In the beginning it used to be a luxury item or for big cities with big stories; now it's an invaluable tool."

Helinet is a good example of a helicopter-leasing company. See, New York's Fox 5 doesn't really own High 5. Helinet does. WPIX Channel 11 doesn't own Air 11. Helinet does. "We're a turnkey operator," Kelley explains. "We can provide them with a helicopter, a pilot, a camera, and equipment." Or they can just supply the station with a helicopter. It all depends upon the lease.

But if you really think about it, isn't it more important for drivers to know that Kansas City's Interstate 35 South is backed up from 63rd to 95th Street than it is for TV viewers to see live pictures from KMBC's NewsChopper 9? A driver can take evasive action. A viewer can only sit passively and maybe have another cup of coffee and think about how crummy it would be sitting in a traffic jam not getting any information about it from the car radio.

Not that it's all pie in the sky for TV choppers. Take New York's WNBC. It's had four Chopper 4s crash, two in the past decade alone. And the new Chopper 4 that nothing else was like? I flew in its lush, luxurious cabin when it was introduced in September 1998; that December the pilot and a reporter were covering a power outage in Newark when the helicopter itself suffered a power outage and crashed into the Passaic River. Both men had to swim for it, but they were OK.

Then in May 2004 the "old" Chopper 4 (that the new one replaced, which then replaced the new one once the new one went down) itself went down in Brooklyn while covering a shooting for the 6 o'clock news. Although the NTSB hasn't yet issued the cause, the tail rotor reportedly ground to a halt and Chopper 4 began spiraling out of control while the pilot, Russ Mowry, fought to land on top of a four-story building. He missed, but managed to bring it down atop the two-story building next door.

Although the Eurocopter was destroyed, Mowry and his two passengers made it out alive. But the station suffered some embarrassment: NewsCopter 7 and Chopper 2 (perhaps with its Infrared Camera) were also covering the story, and they caught it all and broadcast the accident on their news programs. Repeatedly. But the new, new Chopper 4 is on the air. Naturally. The radio chopper may be dying off, but TV choppers are going to be around as long as there's TV news — and traffic jams.

Phil Scott is a pilot and freelance writer living in New York City.