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Monday, October 1, 2007

Public Safety Notebook: Are We Our Brother’s Keeper?

Lee Benson

IT WAS WITH GREAT REGRET THAT I learned of the midair between two media helicopters July 27 in Phoenix. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the four men involved.

Although I didn’t know either of the pilots, I took this as a personal loss because they were professional helicopter pilots and therefore my peers. In my 39 years in this industry, I have met only a handful of pilots that I’ve learned to dislike. How many people do you know who truly love their profession that aren’t good guys to be around. Flying helicopters is a difficult way to make a living. Most people move on unless they really love flying.

I have no clue what caused the Phoenix accident. This is prompted by the loss of two of our peers and a desire to share what has worked well in the world’s most helicopter-rich environment: Los Angeles.

I take this accident personally because I worked part-time as a media pilot in the early 1980s for L.A.’s KCBS. I think I understand some of the difficulties and pressures a media pilot faces every day. In fact, it was that job that caused Jim Sanchez, my full-time boss at L.A. County Fire Dept. at the time, to instruct me to conduct a media safety briefing in 1982.

It was an interesting assignment. Some public service pilots thought finally the media guys would see they had no right to be in the area of public safety helicopter operations and would go away. Some media pilots thought this would be the perfect opportunity to teach the public safety pilots about the U.S. Constitution, particularly as it relates to freedom of the press, which would cause them to allow media aircraft unlimited access to all public safety operations.

So there we were in the county’s hangar, folks from all the TV stations, and some radio and print media on one side of the room, pilots from all the local public safety air sections on the other. The FAA, NTSB, and a few other folks showed up, because obviously a bunch of helicopter pilots couldn’t figure this out without some input from the regulation gods.

Fortunately, the U.S. Forest Service didn’t have a representative and very quickly the difficulty of contacting the service’s "Air Attack" aircraft on fires came up. All the pilots, media and local agency alike, who worked on fires with that agency had a common problem. All of a sudden, we were just a bunch of professional helicopter pilots trying to make a living and get home safely. This certainly wasn’t the end of media-vs.-public-safety pilot problems. There was some strife at meetings in the next few years while some of the Neanderthals beat their chest and tried to get their way. But it paved the way for better dialogue.

The common thought at this meeting for years has been: "No piece of brush, bad guy, or news story is worth anyone in the room not going home to their family."

The meeting is still held every year, usually hosted by the Professional Helicopter Pilots Assn. The last one I chaired was really rewarding because, after the usual exchange of names, contact numbers, and frequencies, I asked if anyone had any problems to discuss. In 25 min, we were done and eating the free food that association provided to bribe us into coming.

If you manage a public safety agency conducting air operations with news-gathering aircraft or other agency aircraft in attendance, you need to conduct yearly meetings with pilots that share that airspace.

I’ll offer two examples of solutions produced by our meetings.

In the initial attack on a brush fire in the L.A. basin, the helicopter coordinator would find himself directing four heavy helicopters, six medium birds, and six media ones within minutes. That didn’t work.

Our group’s solution was this: The first-in media helicopter contacts the coordinator on that agency’s primary frequency. (Remember, we shared those frequencies at our meeting — or we look them up in the great frequency guide the association gives out each year.) The coordinator gives that first ship the altitude that he would like the new-gathering aircraft to be at, directs them to operate on the helicopter common frequency for the basin 123.05 MHz and goes back to working the fire.

He now knows where the media ships are and that they will provide their own separation. The media ships operate on the common frequency but monitor the agency’s primary frequency just in case something changes.

In the second example, I fault myself. I would go on rescues and assume I was the only helicopter there because I was the only one dispatched. Here I come with visions of being a hero and almost run over some media pilot doing his job just as he or she should who happened to have arrived on scene before me. This has been somewhat mitigated by the media guys announcing their presence on the common frequency so I do not assume myself into a hole in the ground.

I do believe that we are our brother’s keeper and that all my fellow helicopter pilots are my brothers, not just the ones that fly for a particular agency. Working together the media guys and the public service folks can make it more likely that all of us go home at the end of the day to our families.

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