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NTSB: Distractions Caused Phoenix ENG Chopper Crash

As a result, the NTSB made 10 recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration to avoid such incidents in the future

A news chopper crash that resulted in the deaths of four members of Phoenix-area TV news crews was caused by pilot distraction, according to a report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board this week.

Pilots of the two choppers involved in the accident — which involved covering a police pursuit in Phoenix on July 27, 2007 — failed to report and visually track each other to support their stations’ ENG operations, the NTSB said. A lack of formal procedures for ENG chopper pilots during newsgathering operations was also cited as a contributing factor to the crash.

At the time of the accident, a total of six helicopters were in the air covering the police pursuit: the two choppers from KNXV and KTVK — which were involved in the crash — as well as three other ENG choppers and a police helicopter, which was operating below the news helicopters. Each helicopter had a reporter onboard and four of the five ENG helicopters had a photographer on board videotaping the event.

Killed in the KTVK aircraft were pilot Scott Bowerbank, 42, and photographer Jim Cox, 37; the victims in the KNXV accident included pilot Craig Smith, 46, and photographer Rich Krolak, 55.

Although ENG helicopters are equipped with gear to communicate their positions to other aircraft in the area, in this case, the pilots that were involved in the accident were distracted to the changing situation on the ground and their broadcast, the NTSB said. The last time the two pilots coordinated their positions or intentions to each other was about four minutes before the collision, and at the time of the accident, the pilots were reporting on the events on the ground, which diverted their attention from maintaining their helicopters’ stated positions and altitude and scanning the area for potential collision hazards.

“A pilot’s first and primary responsibility is to operate the aircraft in a safe manner,” said NTSB Acting Chairman Mark V. Rosenker. “Assigning someone else, other than the flying pilot, to perform the reporting duties in ENG operations and improved technology to assist pilots in distinguishing between the shape of airborne objects operating below them and the surrounding terrain will prevent accidents like this from occurring again.”

As a result, the NTSB made 10 recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration to avoid such incidents. Among the recommendations: require ENG operators to assign reporting responsibilities to someone other than the chopper pilot, unless it can be determined that the pilot can reasonably handle the job; install crash-resistant recording systems; develop “best practices” guidelines for ENG operations; install crash-resistant flight recorder systems; host annual ENG helicopter conferences to discuss operational and safety issues; develop letters of agreement for aircraft to specify minimum horizontal and vertical separation requirements; and require ENG operators to use high-visibility blade paint designs and improved anti-collision (strobe) lights on their aircraft.

The report can be read here.

— TV Technology