ABOVE The call of duty

From: Richard W. Adkins, WRAL-TV Raleigh, NC

Photo: Rihcard W. Adkins

Photo: Richard W. Adkins

It’s just before dawn. A breeze is blowing from the south and even though the sky is dark, you can tell the clouds are weaving a blanket high above.

“It makes for an interesting sunrise,” figures Gil Hollingsworth as he snakes up the spiral staircase to the roof. The steel staircase transitions to a wooden walkway, then a large platform and a shiny new Bell 407 helicopter known as “The New Sky 5,” WRAL’s latest and greatest news gathering tool. Hollingsworth hesitates just a second in the helipad lights, “I love to fly.” He will say that 7 more times in the next two hours.

Hollingsworth is one of hundreds of television news photographers who use helicopters in their daily storytelling. Two recent crashes have a lot of photographers questioning the necessity, safety and sanity of aerial news photography.

On this day pilot Glenn Brown climbs into the front right seat and starts the blades spinning. There is a nerve-racking number of moving parts. Hollingsworth watches as the blades pick up speed. “You just have to trust the aircraft is properly maintained,” he says matter-of-factly. A subtle hand gesture from the pilot lets Hollingsworth know to unplug the external power supply from the aircraft and climb onboard.

The blades spin about two minutes before Brown instructs “Coming up!” He pulls pitch and the 5,200-pound helicopter gently lifts up, spins slightly counter-clockwise and takes off southwest over the city. Hollingsworth is unfazed by this mechanical magic, he doesn’t even look out the window. “It’s pretty standard stuff,” he says as he fiddles with the camera controls.

Photo: Rihcard W. Adkins

Photo: Richard W. Adkins

Once airborne, Hollingsworth has a little time to reflect on his feelings about flying. “I love to fly,” he says again, “I trust the pilot.” Trust seems to be the key to the Photographer/Pilot relationship. “My focus has to be on the ground,” Hollingsworth points out, “I can’t afford to be looking around second guessing the pilot.” Pilot Brown agrees, “I tell these (photographers) to speak up if they see another aircraft, let me know if they have a question.”

Aboard “The New Sky 5,” surrounded by air-conditioning, tinted windows and leather seats, Hollingsworth remembers a time when flying for news was not nearly so extravagant… or safe. “It was 1980,” he says of his first news helicopter flight, “It was a Hughes 500.” Hollingsworth recounts having to twist and turn to get the camera out the side of the 4-seat helicopter, and the fact there was no door between him and the ground below. They would fly “low and slow”, a risky technique needed for steady hand-held camera work.

This is not 1980, and Brown says advances in gyro-stabilized cameras with long lenses have made flying for news much safer. “If I have a problem, I need airspeed and altitude, if I’m low and slow, I’m screwed.” Brown routinely flies at 1000 feet or higher.

Shelly Leslie used to fly in a Hughes 500 as well. But that was before the crash of a competitor’s helicopter, and the death of three people onboard. “The thought we would crash entered my mind every time I flew,” said Leslie. Then the crash, pregnancy and her husband’s concern swayed her to decide not to fly anymore. “It had nothing to do with the helicopter or the pilot,” Leslie remembers, “but suddenly I knew the threat of crashing was real.”

WRAL’s Chief Pilot Steve Wiley understands some photographers’ uneasiness with flying, and he says being comfortable aboard a helicopter is the first step to safer flying. “I think one of the keys to employing happy flyers, whether it is reporters or photographers, is the person has to genuinely love flying,” Wiley says. “Once you have a desire to fly, an open minded pilot can teach the individual to be a crew member (an extra set of eyes) thereby making the trip more rewarding and increasing the safety factor.”

Wiley says putting people in an aircraft who don’t want to be there is unproductive in the news gathering process. “I don’t like to fly with people who are scared, it takes a lot of air time to make them feel comfortable with the machine and the pilot, and I don’t think the apprehension ever really goes away. So, when picking air crew it is better to find someone who really enjoys the aircraft and wants to learn not only the camera but aviation, rather than trying to force the issue with someone that does not enjoy the experience.”

Hollingsworth does enjoy the experience, “I love to fly, I always have”. The helicopter settles into a hover for the morning’s third live look at rush-hour traffic. “Damn!” complains Brown over the headset system. The helicopter pitches slightly side to side and Brown cusses the increasing wind gusts. Hollingsworth sits emotionless. “I’ve been in this aircraft long enough to get used to it, you can tell when something is not right.” In this case everything is right, and Brown maneuvers the aircraft slightly to smooth out the hover.

Photo: Richard W. Adkins

Photo: Richard W. Adkins

The helicopter’s nose is facing due south and to the east the sun is starting to peek through a slit in the cloud blanket. Orange rays wash the side of the helicopter as Hollingsworth points the camera for a beauty shot. It’s times like this when he and Brown make light of their simple safety rule. “Rotor on top,” Hollingsworth says in the direction of the front seat. “Rotor on top,” Brown volleys back.

Hollingsworth’s comfort level in the left rear seat of the jet helicopter is evident. It’s obvious he feels safe at 1300 feet. He says the helicopter is no different than any other piece of broadcast equipment, “It’s like a satellite truck, or a microwave truck or any piece of equipment we use – it can kill you if you don’t use it right.”

Two hours after lift-off, the rooftop platform is now in view again. Hollingsworth begins to stow the remote camera equipment and takes the chance to look out the window. The helicopter’s rotor wash greets an unsuspecting woman walking through the parking lot. The mechanical power of the machine is amazing… so is its power over Hollingsworth, “I want to fly all the time, I love to fly!”

Sky5 Fact File

Make & Model: Bell 407
Cruising Speed: 140 knots
Capacity: Pilot plus 4 passengers
Gross Weight: 5,250 lbs.
Maximum Flight Duration: 3+ hours

The helicopter has five on-board cameras; three are inside the chopper, and two are outside. One of the outside cameras is a Wescam Gyro-stabilized camera system. In addition to the cameras, there is a moving map that can be used on the air to show viewers where the helicopter is. The aircraft is equipped with DVCPRO videotape editing. There is also a StormScope which identifies lightning activity in the area.

About the Chief Pilot

Name: Steve Wiley
Date of Birth: 11/04/55
Birthplace: Beaconsfield, England
Helicopter Flying Hours: 9,700
Flying Experience: 13 years with Sky5; Flew for WPVI in Philadelphia and WABC in New York; Flight instructor for 5 years
Aircraft Experience: Flown everything from one passenger piston helicopters to multi-engine 12-passenger helicopters.

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