In the Air, On the Air: Reporting from above"We interrupt this program for a special report. We go now live to our 'eye in the sky' where we are tracking a white Ford Bronco believed to be carrying O.J. Simpson?."
"From Chopper Nine, you can see traffic backed-up for at least five miles following a spectacular 26 car pile-up."
"We switch now to Sky10 where we can observe clearly the devastation caused by the inferno. What once was a lush canyon?."
And so it goes in the highly charged, intensely competitive world of television news. TV stations in large and medium cities throughout the United States spend fortunes on what the professionals call ENG or electronic news gathering. In the struggle to be first with the most, TV stations invest millions of dollars on mobile studios, cameras, satellite delivery systems, and, the most prestigious tool of all, helicopters.
As the saying goes, time is money, and nowhere is time more critical than in television news. When news breaks 20 miles from the studio, a chopper can transform an hour commute in rush-hour traffic into a 10-minute sprint.
What of the pilots who maneuver these machines into parking lots and alleys so that the station's reporters can testify to the goings-on? Who are they and what is life like in a career that many consider the plum of the rotor world? And just how does the career-oriented rotor-head (a term of endearment) snag this kind of a job?
Citizens of Southern California have seen KGTV's Sky10 plying the skies around San Diego and taking tube-watchers directly to the day's action for nearly two decades. For the past seven years, the Sky10 Bell JetRanger has been piloted by Kyle Anastasio, who himself has achieved almost anchorman-like recognition in the community.
Let Kyle describe an average day:
5:00 a.m.: "My pager goes off. It is the usual message, 'Phone the desk ASAP.' Upon calling in, I am told that there is a raging fire in the local mountains and that several structures are threatened. There is already a crew on the ground getting great video, but the helicopter will be needed to uplink a signal so that the images can be fed on tape back to the station.
"Because of the remote location, it isn't possible to send a signal direct to one of the local mountain receiver sites. So I am needed to act as a satellite and reflect the signal-not always the easiest task in a helicopter. To do so requires hovering in a precise position for up to a half hour despite gusty winds through the canyons.
"About the time we arrive in the area, the California Department of Forestry also arrives. I soon find out that there is a TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) in effect, and I need permission to enter the area. They oblige on the understanding that I need to keep a sharp lookout for fire-suppressing planes and helicopters.
"I set up for a hover. I get the call that the signal is in and they are ready to feed tape. But don't breathe. The signal is somewhat iffy and any excessive movement in the hover would require reestablishing the signal and starting the feed all over again.
"After 40 minutes of dancing on the controls, the tape is fed. The next task is to get some aerial shots of the tankers dropping suppressant on the fire. This requires a little bit of flying on the edge-close to the fire and the aircraft and very low to the ground. The idea is to get tight video of the drops but in no way infringe on the tanker's airspace."
9:00 a.m.: "Time to call the news desk to find out what's next. The desk replies, 'We will need you to come to the station, pick up a reporter and photographer, and return to the fire for the 11 a.m. show.' The plan is to establish an uplink with the crew on the ground so that the reporter can go live. The reporter will then 'toss' it up to the helicopter where my airborne reporter will go live with aerials in the background.
"I return to the station helipad around 9:40 a.m. A little more fuel and a quick cup of coffee and we launch again."
10:15 a.m.: "Back to the fire. At the time I get cleared in, I have five minutes to get with micro-wave control to establish a signal for our live shot, get a sound check on the reporter, and position the photographer to avoid back-lighting and assure that he has something worth showing the viewers. Needless to say, this is a challenge while listening to four different radios and avoiding conflict with the other nine fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft at assorted altitudes. The whole [broadcast] process is over in three minutes.
"It's time to start making my way out of this pea soup and head for the station. The winds die down a little, which is good for the fire crews but bad for the pilots. The visibility worsens."
11:15 a.m.: "A radio call comes from the news desk. 'Sky10, head to Ramona airport immediately. There has been a mid-air! Advise us of your estimated time of arrival.'
"We arrive over the sight. It takes me a minute to see what is actually going on. Two houses are completely engulfed in fire, and there is burning debris scattered all over the streets. A closer look reveals that this accident involves something bigger than just small trainers.
"I tell the reporter to have the news desk send ground crews immediately. A couple of more orbits reveal that one of the accident aircraft is a four-engine tanker that had just come off the Laguna fire and the other is a U.S. Forestry Service Beech Baron lead plane.
"A little girl is running down the middle of the street screaming. Several cars are consumed by flames.
"Getting on sight as quickly as possible after an incident occurs is one of the top goals as a news pilot. Not even the fire department has arrived. I am designated the coordination aircraft for maintaining contact with the other soon-to-arrive media."
12:00 Noon: "The morning news show ends, and it's time to land at the airport for much needed fuel. Unicom tells me that the airport is closed, and there will be no approval for any operations into or out of the field. My best option is to start making my way toward the closest airport in Carlsbad."
1:45 p.m.: "A fuel truck arrives. This is the first time all day that I have the chance to take a break and eat."
2:55 p.m.: "I'm ready to land at the station when the news radio comes alive. 'Sky10, we have a high-speed pursuit with a stolen vehicle in Normal Heights. Please head that way.' "I arrive on site. The local police department is trying to get a blue pickup to stop driving erratically. The driver decides he is going to drive up the off ramp onto the freeway and into opposing traffic. At that point the police on the ground discontinue the chase. That leaves only me following the truck.
"The old adage, 'You can run but you can't hide' holds true. About 20 minutes later, I am directing the police helicopter to the area, and together we chase the truck to the border with Mexico, where the suspect is arrested. (The next day, I receive a letter from the chief of police thanking me for the assistance.)"
3:45 p.m.: "I return to the station to refuel and get ready to fly for the 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. shows. I use this time to check messages and find out what slots in the show I will be needed for. It's been a pretty good day for news."
4:20 p.m.: "I launch with my news crew and fly back to Ramona to cover the mid-air accident. By now the news desk has a little more info. We observe the scene and establish a microwave signal with the station. Then we film and send any last minute video back to be edited. The plan is to go live over Ramona off the top of the show. After the live shot ends, we are to fly to the fire burning on the Laguna range and be ready to go live again 12 minutes later."
6:05 p.m.: "After the 5 p.m. newscast is complete, we head back to Ramona, fuel up and stand by to carry out the same plan again for the 6:30 p.m. show. All goes off without a hitch, and it's back to the station to call it a day."
6:55 p.m.: "We land at the station. The news crew departs, and I conduct the postflight check, fuel up, and tuck the Bell into its hangar for the night. I'm home at 7:30 p.m."
Kyle is a member of an elite group of helicopter pilots. Although the Helicopter Association International (www.rotor.com) says there are more than 11,000 rotorcraft in the United States, the National Broadcast Pilots' Association (www.nbpa.rotor.com/nbpahome.htm) catalogs only 130 television stations nationwide that own or lease helicopters for news gathering. In most instances, one pilot handles the day-to-day news-chasing. There are back up part-time pilots who spell the full-timers during vacations, days off, and illnesses, but the industry certainly does not employ thousands?or even hundreds.
This type of flying job typically pays between $30,000 and $50,000 annually depending on the size of the city and station. If you have a pleasing face and the gift of gab plus a helicopter rating, you can take home well over $100,000 as a flying, on-camera reporter.
Bear in mind that the majority of jobs flying ENG helicopters are not with the stations directly but with contractors. In the case of Sky10, Kyle is employed not by KGTV but by Civic Helicopters which contracts with the station to provide a given number of flight and pilot hours monthly.
Not unlike Emergency Medical Service (EMS) helicopter providers, operators of rotor ENG enterprises will require that you have 1,500 to 2,500 hours of helicopter time to be considered for employment. Additional experience in specific types of helicopters may also be required. As in all aviation careers, the minimums do not necessarily translate into competitiveness.
Kyle earned his experience as a civilian, transitioning from fixed-wing aircraft (airplanes) to helicopters.
Why not go for the helicopter outright? Says Kyle: "It is cheaper in the long run to move from an airplane to a helicopter. Of the 100 hours of powered flight necessary for a commercial helicopter pilot certificate, only 50 hours must be in a helicopter. The remaining time can be had in Cessnas and Pipers. Considering that the cost of a Robinson R22, the Cessna 152 of the helicopter training fleet, can top $125 per hour, accumulating 100 hours of pure helicopter time can be extremely pricey."
The aspiring rotor professional builds up time as an instructor. Between freelancing and instructing, Kyle eventually accumulated 1,800 hours of helicopter time, including instructional experience in turbine-powered Bells. He then parlayed those credentials into flying jobs inspecting pipelines, running shuttles to oil rigs, and taking aerial photographs.
When his flying contract expired in Louisiana, Kyle found his way back home to San Diego. An acquaintance at Montgomery Field told Kyle that Civic Helicopters was searching for a pilot for Sky10. The requirements: 3,000 hours of helicopter time, including 1,500 hours in turbine helicopters and 500 hours in the Bell 206 JetRanger. With that and more, Kyle was chosen from hundreds of applicants to pilot Sky10.
As one of the best-compensated ENG helicopter pilots in the business, Kyle offers these suggestions for pilots who would like to follow in his flight path:
o Get as many ratings as possible, especially instrument-helicopter and instrument instructor-helicopter ratings. The best jobs, including EMS, require helicopter instrument ratings.
o Become computer and electronics literate. ENG pilots may have to act as broadcast engineers as well as aviators.
o Flooding prospective employers with resumes just doesn't work. In ENG flying, it really is all about who you know.
o Don't make contacts, make friends. In the tight community of ENG pilots, an opportunist is easily marked. Attend the annual Helicopter Association International convention to begin forging new relationships.
o ENG flying is not always glamour, and adrenaline. There is excitement, sure, but there are also long days spent waiting for something to happen.
o Never let show business go to your head. Although there is an element of star power to ENG, remember that your primary role is that of pilot.
Well, as they say in the ENG business, "That's a wrap." You now have the scoop about what it takes to be in the air and on the air!
By Wayne Phillips