Saturday, July 28, 2007

Phoenix News Helicopter Tragedy

There was a terrible accident in the skies over Phoenix yesterday. Two TV news helicopters collided while trying to keep up with a police pursuit of a car theft suspect on the ground. Walter Owens at Overlawyered picked up on the story , noting something I also heard yesterday. The county attorney, Andrew Thomas, is considering trying to hold the car chase suspect the helicopters were trying to follow respsonsible for the deaths of the two helicopter crews.

As tempting as it is to try to find some other party to blame for this tragedy, I agree with one of Walter's commenters that this is stretching the chain of culpability too far. The fact is that the pilots of those two helicopters failed in one of the most basic responsibilities they had under Visual Flight Rules, that is to see, be seen by and maintain safe separation from other aircraft. I hold a commercial pilot's license myself (fixed wing) and this fact as well as the fact that it is the Pilot-In-Command of the aircraft that is completely and solely responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft were drilled into me from the very outset of my training.

Here we had at least three helicopters (I've heard there may have been as many as five), the two accident aircraft from Chanels 15 and 3, and the Fox 10 helicopter all in close proximity to each other and all trying to simultaneously keep track not only of each other but of the random twists and turns of the car chase they were tracking on the ground. With attention divided like that it only takes a second or two to lose sight of each other and one wrong move can result in a tragedy like this.

This was an entirely preventable accident but these crews chose to put themselves at risk to capture a few more minutes of the kind of car chase footage that seems to be a staple of the 10:00 o'clock news nowadays. They took a gamble and lost. As irresponsible as that car thief was, I don't think he can be held responsible for what happened in the sky above him.

Update: There were six helos in total, five news, one police. I see that a lot around here when something is happening. It's a wonder something like this hasn't happened before. This one could have been much worse though. The helicopters came down in the only open space for a long way around and just a little west of the VA hospital.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree. The driver is responsible for current laws broken. Not a mishap related to the business of covering "news" which is discretionary. Had a policeman been injured or other innocent citizens during the pursuit, absolutely the driver could be held culpable under current laws. There was no dire need for the news helicopters to risk in such risky business behavior. The news crews were more concerned with the business aspect than the safety risks. As a commercial pilot with over 25 years of professional flying, I truly feel sorrow for the families, but it is not the repsonsibility of the driver. Sadly, that would be similiar to blame the airshow crowds at the Dayton Airfest for the death of airshow performer Jim Leroy yesterday. They were not responsible. Sometimes an accident is an accident, this was preventable, but it still occurred.