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Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Sky Coverage

Helicopter news gathering is growing as camera technology improves and public demand becomes ever more sophisticated.

Douglas W. Nelms

There is every possibility that either the Marquis d'Arlandes or Pilatre de Rozier sent down some news of the surrounding countryside on that first aerial flight by humans back in 1783, going aloft in the Montgolfier brothers' hot air balloon. Thaddeus Lowe and his staff certainly gathered news about the Southern Forces during the Civil War from their helium-filled balloons, and even Napoleon used balloons to gather news on opposing forces during his campaigns.

Unfortunately, while the concept was good, the means of transmitting the information back to the ground left much to be desire.

The real concept of aerial news gathering as we know it today started in the late 1940s when helicopters became popular with police departments, particularly in the New York area. Reporters would either ride along with the police in their helicopters, sending back reports over the radio, or listen to reports being sent down. This led to reporters becoming the "Eye in the Sky," using communication radios and handheld cameras to send stories down to their local stations.

Since then, aerial news gathering has moved from simply the "Eye in the Sky" concept to highly sophisticated digital "real time" communications between the helicopter and the station. The helicopter has also become a flying studio, allowing the reporter, or "talent," to be recorded in real time transmitting the latest news directly to the viewing audience.

Within the past decade, aerial electronic news gathering, or ENG, has grown significantly in both the number of helicopters being dedicated to ENG operations and the sophistication of the equipment being used.

"With all the events happening around the world and within the United States, news is becoming more competitive, particularly if you take into account what is happening in the news industry itself," said Larry Roberts, senior director of sales for American Eurocopter.

"With Viacom and CNN and everything, it's really becoming more competitive."

The sudden spurt of growth in ENG has come from a combination of events, primarily driven by the public demand for instant news gratification and supported by the growing sophistication in news gathering technology. The most noted example was the famed aerial tracking of O.J. Simpson in the white Bronco down the freeways of Los Angeles. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of TV viewers watched the white Bronco slowly drive down the freeway followed by an armada of police cars. Since then, the police chase has become standard fare for the viewing public, with TV stations not daring to be left out when a chase, or any breaking news, takes place.

Supporting this demand for instant news has been the growth of the digital and high definition television set, simultaneous with advances in smaller, lighter weight high technology cameras, the development of the gyro-stabilized camera and the move from analogue to digital communications.

"Over the past two years, the number one selling item in the electronic region for Christmas has been high definition televisions," Roberts said. "People are buying HiDef and they are requiring that kind of coverage. As competitive as the news market is, you can't have Station Y providing HiDef and Station Z not providing it. So we're seeing (the industry) moving to digital away from analog, and improving on digital to HiDef."

Allen (Ace) Pomianek, president of Helinet Aviation Services, noted that sports are also contributing to the growth in demand for high definition television. "The males are driving the high definition television sales. You can literally see sales peak right before the games. The Super Bowl was transmitted in HiDef; the Laker games that were going into the semi-finals were HiDef. The guy has to see his baseball or football or basketball in HiDef. It makes a difference."

While the demand by the public for higher quality TV pictures is forcing television stations to improve the type of camera and transmission equipment they use to gather the news, TV stations still have to consider the platforms on which they are going to use that equipment.

The two big players in ENG helicopters today are Bell, primarily with its 206s, and Eurocopter with its AStars. Completions of the helicopters into ENG configuration are performed by companies such as Hurst, Texas-based Helidyne, which completes the helicopter then turns it over to the end user.

Few stations today own their own helicopters, although they do tend to have exclusive use of the helicopters they use. "Normally, every TV station has its own helicopter," said David Horton, president of Helidyne. "The only farmed out helicopters that are shared would be the radio stations, just because of the costs. If a TV station is going to be a big player in the major markets, it has to have that helicopter to compete for the viewership.

Most TV stations lease their helicopters, turning to companies such as St. Louis, Mo.-based Helicopters Inc., U.S. Helicopters in Charlotte, N.C. or Helinet of Van Nuys, Calif. These companies buy the helicopters, completely outfit them with the necessary equipment, then wet-lease them to the news stations. These leases include the pilots and occasionally the "talent."

The aircraft are normally leased under an "exclusive use" contract, according to Jeff Lieber, general manager for Helicopters Inc. One of the largest providers of ENG helicopters with 58 Bell 206s and 407s, Helicopters Inc. only offers its helicopters under exclusive use contracts. "Once we contract with a TV station, they have exclusive use of the aircraft as well as complete control as far as how they use it," Lieber said. And how they use it "depends on the market. Each customer has its own personality, and each market is different in the way the TV stations compete with one another. It depends on how aggressive they are. You're typically going to find in the smaller, less aggressive markets that they are going to fly 500 hours per year, and in the larger markets that are more aggressive they can easily exceed 1,000 hours per year. The range for ENG (helicopters) is between 400 and 1,200 hours per year."

Lieber said that they operate Bell helicopters exclusively, using the 206B3 for the smaller markets, the 206L4 for the medium markets and the 407 for the "highest end markets." He said that they typically add three to six customer stations per year, "so if you project out over five years, and let's say we added five per year, we'd be looking at 25 new customers, so we might go from 58 to 80 helicopters."

Whether they will continue to use Bell products exclusively depends on the customer, he said. "The plan right now is to stay with Bell helicopters. Hopefully our customers continue to appreciate the same things that we do from Bell, because of the excellent support and reliability. That is not to say that I'm going to totally rule out Eurocopter. It just makes more sense for us to streamline our product line because that way we are more responsive in the maintenance area."

Whether a brand new or used helicopter is leased to a customer depends on the customer, Lieber said. "Sometimes the bid comes out and it says the helicopter has to be brand new. In that case, if we get the contract, we order new. If it is not specified new, we try to get a very low time newer model aircraft. We will not go out and put a really high time aircraft on a program. We like to bid (the contract) with the L4 or B3 or 407 that are later model helicopters."

There is, in fact, a growing market for new helicopters going into the ENG industry. The history of the ENG market since the late 1940s had been for stations to purchase older, inexpensive model helicopters, or to continue using helicopters that have become older over the years. Now they are getting rid of those aircraft and using the leasing capability to move into newer models with new technology and better capabilities.

In general, the helicopter of choice appears to be the Eurocopter AS350 AStar. Roberts noted that in the Los Angeles basin, which probably has the highest concentration of ENG helicopters in the United States, "you'll see 80 percent of ENG helicopters are all AStars." A key advantage is the aircraft's time on station of greater than three hours, allowed by the useful load of 143 gallons of fuel, he said. He also noted that the cabin of the AStar "allows stations to create a mini-studio inside the helicopter. You can put cameras inside the machine that can show the reporter on TV."

All models of the AStar are popular, which includes the B2, B3 and EC130, "which essentially is the B4," he said. "Because of the power of the aircraft, we have a significant amount of tail rotor authority, so they have the power to say on scene in out-of-ground-effect hover at altitude in windy conditions, whether it is a police action, an accident or covering the Oscars in Hollywood."

American Eurocopter expects that 10 to 12 percent of its overall sales will now be going into the ENG market. "It varies, but never goes below 5 to 6 percent and can be as high as 15 percent. But this year will be about 12 percent," he said. Overall, Eurocopter feels that it has "about 60 percent or better of all helicopters in the ENG market in the U.S. since the late 1990s, or about the past five years," Roberts said.

The AStar is definitely the helicopter of choice for Helinet Aviation Services, another one of the biggest lessors of helicopters for the ENG market.

Pomianek said that they operate roughly 40 helicopters, of which 26 are for ENG work. The rest are used for operations such as medical transport, corporate charter and the movie industry.

Although they do have a couple of Bell 206s, "Almost all of our ENG helicopters are AStars, various models of the AS350, with the newer ones being the B2," he said. "We have three B3s in Denver for the higher altitude there." Helinet has its helicopters leased to TV stations throughout the United States, although it is strongest in the western and northeastern part of the United States and weakest in the south, he said.

While the standard lease for an ENG operation consists of the aircraft and the pilot, it can also come with a camera operator and/or the reporter. "In providing the talent, typically the station provides us with the talent, then we pay the talent and the station pays us."

Despite the advantages of the leased ENG, not all stations are going with that program, or rushing into the high-tech HiDef digital camera arena.

Channel 3 KTVK TV in Phoenix still has its own aircraft and operates a handheld Schwem gyro-stabilized camera that by today's standards is virtually an antique--yet still effective. In keeping its own helicopter, KTVK is also different in another way from leasing companies that do not allow their pilots to serve as reporters while flying the aircraft.

"We're the last of the cowboys," said Bruce Haffner, chief pilot and star aerial reporter for Channel 3. "I'm probably the last cowboy in the air, shooting out the door of the helicopter. We're the last ones still using a Schwem gyro-stabilized lens--that was the first thing that revolutionized shooting out of helicopters. We still have ours. Have had it for about 15 year. We're talking about getting the nose mount, small ball camera and all that stuff probably next year. We're the last ones in our market without one."

In its decision to stay with the equipment it had, Channel 3 made the conscious decision to compete not by going hi-tech, but by going with the persona of both its reporter and its helicopter.

"What the station did with our helicopter is that they made it more of a personality instead of just something to provide a close up shot of an apartment fire or car chase and all that," Haffner said. "They allowed us to turn into a personality. When I first started this job, they really promoted me a lot. There were billboards around town, they did video commercials, they put my son in a commercial, they did a lot of promotion of me delivering the news from the helicopter."

Haffner served as a news photographer for 13 of the 20 years he'd been with the station, then learned to fly and became their pilot. "I already knew the television part of the deal, so I just had to learn to fly. So I bring to the helicopter more than the guys who are just pilots and haven't been on the streets as a newsman. That's the difference between me and the other pilots. I have editing skills from the streets as a newsman, so when I work with the photographer in the back, we're pretty much on the same page."

The Channel 3 helicopter is equipped with a "tail-cam" showing the side of the aircraft "so everybody knows what the aircraft looks like. It's my `go-shot'," he said. "If I'm switching from one scene to another, just as a diversion I might go to the tail-cam and use that, or we use the tail-cam coming back from commercials, with music under it."

Haffner said that he flies a morning show for two and a half hours in the morning, then does an evening show for an hour and a half. He is supported by two backup pilots, including Scott Bowerbank, who taught him to fly and whom he is now teaching to be a reporter/pilot. "Scott has about a million hours in the air and is actually running the facility where three of the other media helicopters fly out of."

While the philosophy of owning its own helicopter and turning both the aircraft and its pilot/reporter into well-known "personalities" consistently put Channel 3 in either first or second place in the ratings, it does have a downside, he said.

Phoenix has three other media helicopters that are leased under a turnkey operation, "which makes it easy for the stations because they know what kind of money they are going to spend, whereas we do not," Haffner said. "We have a 500-hr. (inspection) that we're going to be going through in about two weeks, and we don't know what they are going to find or how expensive it is going to be."

With the increasing amount of equipment being put on ENG helicopters to shoot not only what is going on down below, but also cover the reporters inside the "flying studio," the power of the turbine helicopter would seem to be a given. However, increasing technology has allowed ENG equipment to become smaller and lighter--allowing piston engine helicopters such as the Robinson R44 to enter the field.

Robinson now produces its "R44 Newscopter," and is making great inroads into the ENG industry, according to Kurt Robinson, vice president, product support. The R44 Newscopter "is the world's only turnkey ENG helicopter. It has been designed, manufactured, tested and FAA approved specifically as an ENG helicopter."

He noted that the majority of the Newscopter sales have been on the international market, particularly in Latin America. "We own Brazil," he said. A total of 35 Newscopters have been delivered worldwide, of which only 46 percent were for the United States. The remaining 54 percent went to Brazil, Portugal, France, Italy, Japan and England.

While the Newscopter provides the exact same video coverage as its larger, more powerful turbine brothers, the cost per operating hour and less maintenance requirements means that it can provide nearly twice the news coverage for the same price, he said. With a base price tag of only $557,000, plus around $30,000 for optional ENG equipment, it's a pretty good deal.

The large rear cabin of the R44 "is optimized for back seat camera and ENG operation while the front left seat provides room for an optional reporter or passenger."

Mike Smith, managing director of "Flying TV," a U.K.-based free lance ENG operation, recently purchased the R44 Newscopter. Although the cost of the helicopter was less both for initial purchase and for operations, that was not the deciding factor, Smith said. "Ultimately the decision was down to the quality of the shot that came off of it," he said. "You can have the cheapest helicopter shot in the world, but if it is not a good shot, you're not going to get any work."

Smith noted that most western European countries use totally different systems than in the United States. Europe uses the PAL TV format with 625 lines per inch, compared to the 545 lines per inch NTSC format used in the United States. The Robinson system can match that higher quality standard, he said. It can also produce video either for the 16 to nine ratio screens that are becoming standard in Europe compared to the four to three ration that is common in the United States. "We can go to either ratio with a flick of a switch," he said. "That opened up a whole new market for us. All sports broadcasting in the UK is 16 to nine (ratio). They won't accept anything less."

The R44 Newscopter also has the longest time on station, with the ideal speed for filming, Smith said. "The (Newscopter's) speed for maximum duration is 63 kt., which is a perfect filming speed. We don't need to hover, we can do nice flat orbits around the subject and that 63 kt. will give us nearly four hours in the air. Nobody can touch that."

Smith also noted another major advantage for filming in the UK--the lack of noise.

"This is the height of the British horse racing season and we have a (BBC) contract to cover the major races for seven days, going live two hours a day. We will transmit live the whole time, giving them superb shots. The thing about horse racing is that the last thing you need is a turbine helicopter near the horses, so a piston engine is ideal. The 81 decibles that we have doesn't upset the horses. We've done two noise tests in recent weeks for two different racecourses. Because they are so worried about helicopters, they make you do a noise test before they will accept you. And they all said this was the quietest thing they have ever heard."

A major change that has come over the industry is the shift in the role of the pilot. In the early days, most pilots also acted as the reporter, describing what was happening on the ground while flying around it. This led to a rash of accidents from pilots flying into wires or simply running out of fuel, the most notable being the death of U-2 Pilot Gary Powers, who died in a helicopter crash in 1977 while flying for a Los Angeles TV station.

Today, pilots tend not to report the news, leaving that up to the "talent." Lieber said that at Helicopters Inc. some pilots do serve as photojournalists, "so they may actually report over a scene and they may dub in their audio along with the video feed that they are getting, so that gives them more responsibility. The pilots occasionally do get involved in reporting, such as on a traffic report and using audio equipment as to what they are looking at. But at no time do we allow our pilots to operate any video equipment. They can report, but their primary responsibility is to fly the aircraft. We're seeing a lot more focus on safety. That is our primary focus when we do any of these programs, to make sure they are done safely."

Both Lieber and Helinet's Pomianek said that they generally look for pilots with a couple thousand hours flight time, with pilot requirements generally governed by its insurance underwriter such as USAIG.

"A pilot will need at least about 2,000 hours helicopter time, and since we fly turbine helicopters, we like to see at least 25 percent (of that time) in turbine models," Lieber said. "But there are a lot of variables. It depends on the type of flying an individual has done, overall attitude and approach. There is a lot more that goes into the mix then just the hard numbers."

He said that a lot of the new pilots coming into the helicopter industry are learning to fly smaller piston engine helicopters such as the Robinson R22. "Those guys will get about 1,000 hours in the R22, then try to transition into the turbine. Once they get some more turbine time under their belt, they become more marketable for the type of pilot we're looking for."

Pilots also tend to be hired within the specific location in which they will be working. "We prefer to get someone who lives (in that area) and understands the market," Lieber said. "If we bring somebody in, they have to learn the market very quickly regarding the landmarks and the rules and regulations regarding working with the other aircraft in the area. But it doesn't take them too long to do that."

Generally, a contract is bid to include just one pilot, although in larger markets where the station requires a longer flight day coverage, the project will be bid with two pilots, he said. But with just one pilot, "we always have backup pilots that are trained to the same level as the primary. These backup pilots are available on a part time basis when the primary pilot is unable to fly. What we are looking for are EMS or police pilots. The police pilots often work seven days on, then seven days off. That works perfect with our program because we work every day. Our primary pilot can schedule his days off at the same time as the police pilot is off so the police pilot can come in and cover for him.

 

Nothing but the Best

 

As in any other industry, the ENG helicopter is a flying platform that is only as good as the equipment in it. Today, technology has provided highly sophisticated camera systems with gyro-stabilization to prevent vibrations even with lens in excess of 1,000 mm. Digital video and communications is allowing real time transmissions of top quality photography to ground stations, and high definition (HiDef) becoming the next giant step in video reproduction.

 

The key pieces of equipment on ENG helicopters are the cameras, ranging from small "lipstick" micro-cameras used to video the interior "studios" and reporters in the cabin area to "tail cams" that can shoot the stations logo on the side of the helicopter to the highly sophisticated "ball turret" cameras that can rotate 360 degrees to record scenes thousands of feet beneath the helicopter.

 

The goal is to get the sharpest image possible. The American public wants nothing but the best for its viewing pleasure--and TV stations nationwide are preparing to give it to them. Today this is high definition, or "HiDef", television, providing crystal clear digital pictures.

 

And to ensure that the American public gets what it wants, the government has dictated that by 2006, at least 90 percent of the homes in the United States have access to HiDef television.

 

The challenge for the providers of helicopter-mounted camera systems was first to develop gyro-stabilized cameras that could support up to 1000 mm lens without shaking. The second was to develop a microwave system to transmit the images directly back to the station in real time, according to Jeff Lieber, general manager, Helicopters Inc. "When you start talking about cutting edge technology, you're talking about camera systems with very high quality zoom lens and the latest advances in high definition camera systems. FLIR has just announced a high definition camera system with 1,000 mm. Couple that with digital equipment and it's cutting edge."

 

FLIR Systems is currently the leader in producing the new gyro-stabilized, 5-axis digital camera systems, with 80 percent of the ENG market. FLIR currently produces two main products for the industry, its "UltraMedia III" and the "UltraMedia III HD." The UltraMedia III is a micro-processor controlled camera shooting either in NTSC or PAL format with "high definition television (HDTV) gradeability," the company said. The more advanced UltraMedia III HD is basically the same as the UltraMedia III, but with HDTV Sony and Fujinan cameras.

Robinson has developed its own camera system for the R44 II-Newscopter. It uses a gyro-stabilized camera system with an Ikegami digital camera and a Canon 42 to 1 lens. It has a 5-axis gyro-stabilized gimbal that, according to Mike Smith of Flying TV in the UK, "has absolutely no wobble, no matter what speed we fly at."

 

One of the newest innovations has been by Helinet Aviation Services in Van Nuys, Calif., which recently purchasing a company called Cineflex that had recently developed a high definition camera gyro-stabilized camera system, said Allen Pomianek, Helinet's president. The Cineflex company had been created by John Coyle, who worked with FLIR, Inc. and designed their gyro-stabilization camera system. He then left and started Cineflex. "Then we bought him," Pomianek said. Coyle still works with Helinet as chief engineer and president of the Cineflex division of Helinet.

 

The Cineflex system uses a high definition Sony HDC-950 camera that, according to Helinet, allows the helicopter to travel up to 200 mph while the camera can zoom out to 112mm, and can clearly photograph a car's license plate from thousands of feet in the sky. It also has a five-axis gyro-stabilization system, is only 14.5 in. in diameter and weighs only 67 lbs.

 

To get the video information to the ground in real time, it uses microwave technology developed by Mircrowave Radio Corp. (MRC) "that is off-the-shelf stuff," Pomianek said. A retractable antenna is attached to the belly of the helicopter and constantly rotates so that it is always pointed at a receiving site. "In Southern California, it's on a mountain top. The antenna is in a radome type dish. You don't see it move, but it is constantly tracking the receiving site via GPS, it is constantly transmitting the data to the mountain top. From there it goes by landline to the station."

Pomianek said that there is currently only one station actually using the HiDef system live. On April 28, KUSA in Denver went live with a HDTV helicopter, becoming the first TV station to do so, Pomianek said. "There is another station in Phoenix using the Ceniflex system, but they are not HiDef yet," he said.

 

Pomianek noted that the new HiDef camera system is also used in the company's support of the Hollywood movie industry.

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