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By Lynn French
Photographer KPNX-TV Phoenix, AZ
March 2004


Five TV stations, 16 news directors, 19 Tape formats, dozens of reporters, hundreds of stories. Through the years I have quit getting excited or ruffled by change. The prospect of a new camera or a refurbished live truck is just part of hanging around the business a few years. Any piece of equipment is fine with me as long as it works consistently, does what it is supposed to and does not smell bad (after a while live trucks that have been through a few Phoenix summers have a "funk" that would choke a goat). I am fortunate to be in a place where we want for nothing. Everybody has soft boxes, good wirelesses and four different kinds of microphones, the Gitzos are being retired for Hot pods, considering what we ask of our staff, they absolutely deserve it. If I had only half the stuff crammed in my news car, I would be fine. But there is one piece of news gathering machinery that makes my heart beat faster... the helicopter... and we got a new one!

Let me say it again, WE GOT A NEW HELICOPTER! Granted, I have worked in places without one and we got the news on the air every day just the same. I just love to fly. Not only rotor craft, I can't pass up hot air balloons or airplanes either, pretty much anything regulated by the FAA.

Don't get me wrong, I adore our old helicopter. The old bird still got us in the air, she is newer than some, older than most and slower than all. The other helicopter aviators in the area refer to her as "Sky Pig" because she flies about as fast as swine in mud. After 19 years, 12,300 flight hours and having just about every piece replaced except for the main airframe, our Bell Long ranger III is ready for retirement from the daily grind of TV News.

Our new baby is a Eurocopter A-Star B-2. Oh honey, it's sweet! From the day we got the thumbs up for the new ship, our chief pilot, Rick and three part-time pilots, Jimmy, Vaughn and Cliff talked about it the same way expectant parents talk about their unborn baby. You basically know when it will be delivered. You know what it will look like... like everybody else's---but ours is so much prettier, smarter and faster (okay, it is the same ship all the other stations have, maybe not faster, but still prettier and smarter).

It kept the same names, Sky 12 and N112TV---but not Sky Pig! I love hearing pilots call out their aircraft tail numbers over the radio to the tower... we retained 1-1-2 Tango Victor for the new one. Tango Victor---It conjures of the image of a young man, early 20s, in a white tuxedo with a pink carnation in the button hole who professionally dances with wealthy widows on cruise ships. There are a few other familiar names that fly out of Scottsdale as well...Papa Delta, if that is not the name of an old blues man playing his Gibson Les Paul on a Monday night in a smoky bar in Shreveport, I don't know what is. How about Whiskey Romeo---a guy who needs a bottle of Jack Daniels to get in the mood?

As exciting as welcoming a new helicopter is... for me, saying good bye to the old one is an even greater proposition. It is a chance to dig into the archives.

My love of hunting "legacy" video started when I was working overnights in Albuquerque years ago. It was before the internet and e-mail were even a consideration, much less on every computer in the newsroom. We would get the morning paper around 4:30 a.m., but I could plow through that in half an hour. I would help the morning show producer write VOs and edit, but these were the days when it was still okay to re-cue the 10PM show twice and call it a newscast. On quiet nights, I had a lot of time to hang out in the newsroom.

I was working at the station I grew up watching. Even after working there for several years, I would see the legendary weatherman in his office and it would make my heart swell. I was reading over some plans for coverage of the 24th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta when I had a bizarre flashback. This would be my first Balloon Fiesta as a reporter/photographer, but it would be my 17th Balloon Fiesta as a spectator.

In my family, it was a fall rite of passage to travel to "the big city" from our rural New Mexico town and watch the balloons while my Dad conducted business and my Mom got an early jump on Christmas shopping. The Balloon Fiesta evolved at the same rate as my family's willingness to explore the city. Those early balloon events encompassed a few dozen traditional balloons from the local folks and a few businesses with some adventurous bucks to burn. It was a magnificent sight to see the bright ornaments adorn the sky, with one special shape---Carmen Miranda. If memory serves me right, she was a balloon from Africa and so exotic. She had the regular bulbous shape of a hot air balloon, but with all kinds of fruit protruding from her head. Her giant face would weave in between the other rainbow striped envelopes and she would spin around to show bananas and oranges hanging down to the nape of her neck.

When I was in elementary school, we would sit on the balcony of our hotel room at sunrise wrapped in blankets watching the colorful dots move closer toward us until they would pass overhead at an altitude that seemed like they would scrape the gondola on the top of your head if you were too tall. We would cheer and wave with every ounce of energy in our bodies as heads poked out of the basket and waved back. Each October, my Mom got braver about venturing off familiar Menaul Boulevard further north to where the balloons were lifting off. By the time I was in junior high, we would pick out a balloon and chase it through the residential streets of north Albuquerque. It was always a special shape. Carmen's magnificent face disappeared from the skyline during these years, but the shapes evolved into champagne bottles and dairy cows.

One year, we were perched on the I-25 frontage road across from Balloon Fiesta Park when my Mom spotted Mickey Mouse descending into a nearby cul-de-sac. As we pulled up, it was obvious this was where Mickey would call it a day and set down. We jumped from the car and ran toward the deflating Disney character. Kids poured out of every house on the block to touch the larger than life face of Steamboat Willie. As we helped catch the collapsing tower of nylon, a TV crew rolled up and started documenting our efforts to fold up Mickey's giant head. We all quickly abandoned the flattened fabric and started mugging and jumping at the camera. The reporter, who I immediately recognized as their hard-core investigative guy asked us to sing the Mickey Mouse song. We screamed at the top of our lungs, "M-I-C...K-E-Y!" Being one of the tallest kids, I quickly muscled my way to the position of front and center.

That night we gathered around the TV for the five o'clock news. I was a little disappointed to see it was not the lead story. But several minutes into the newscast, there was my shining little face with a mouth full of braces belting out the Mickey Mouse song. The next day at school I chewed into my fifteen minutes of fame. "You were on TV last night!" followed me through the halls. No one gave a damn that I was singing the annoying anthem of our childhood, the fact that my mug floated through the air into their homes the previous night gave me total credibility.

There I sat in the newsroom ten years later, I had to find the tape. The previous four years of video archives where in a data base on a single computer with a monochromatic screen next to the assignment desk, but this hunt would require an even more archaic archive search. I started with the moldy card file that at first glance looked like your typical public library system for cataloging books and magazines. But the photographers and editors of the past did not feel any great responsibility to future generations to help them solve even the simplest search, much less a very specific story on a very specific day, of which I did not know the slug and only had a vague idea of the date.

In a procedure I refer to as "hand to hand combat", I went into the archive cave and just started pulling random tapes off the shelf to get an idea of where might be tapes from Fall '86. It is like finding a vein of gold while coal mining, I hit a section of tapes marked on the spine "Ball Fiesta". I pulled all of them and settled into an edit bay with a working 3/4 machine. The slugs and dates were written on labels on the face of the tapes. Unfortunately, after a decade of being called upon as file video, they were shredded. Tape after tape, I shuttled through hours of countdowns followed by 45 second VOs of balloons being inflated, floating by and landing. A few false alarms, big groups of people crowding their faces into the lens, but even in 32X speed, there it was, 22 seconds of it.

I gasped in horror, "that was the shirt I wore that day?" I tried to think back to the 80's, maybe it was cool back then. As I fixated on my metallic mouth full of sharp, poky wires and crooked teeth, I could not believe I survived the high school years. I shuttled the clunky 3/4 inch machine back and forth looking for other details to put me back in that sister's round little face, the short kid in front of me wearing wayfarer sunglasses with neon yellow frames, the Swatch on my wrist---orange and green with fish on the face. Awesome dude.

From that night on, I became a master or searching the archives. At each station I have been at since, I have strived to understand the zeitgeist of past producer's rundowns and editor's scribbling... of people who now work as PIOs at the fire department or escaped to academia.

Granted, there is not much we can do to rectify the sins of the past, but here is how you can help yourself now and others who will rely on your video after you have moved on to a better paying position with more humane hours.

No matter how short the script, always cut VOs to 45 seconds or more. How many stories have you done in the last month that required file video? I bet I do two a week. There is not much you can do with four :03 second shots of a crime scene when you are trying to cover a 1:10 package. Yeah, you can slow-mo them to add an additional second to each shot, you can shoot the four shots five different ways in a monitor with swish pans and snap zooms, but all of these "tricks" cheapen your story by altering the image in a way the viewer must interpret along with what your reporter is trying to get across in their track. With :45 seconds of VO, you draw from shots at the end of the VO that have probably never aired before and give your viewers a fresh look at an old story.

Create bulk tapes. There are those stories that will haunt you for years to come; a big murder that has to work it's way through the court system, the drunk driving car accident that leads to legislation, the natural disaster that wipes away towns and devastates the economy. The last thing you want to do is depend on the same :45 second VO for the next ten years. The very first murder scene I ever covered in my first reporting/shooting job finally cleared the New Mexico court system about two years ago, all they had to work with was three shots of a white duplex with some tattered crime scene tape and a picture of the victim. Yet, that day I shot at least 15 minutes of tape and some poignant interviews that would have really brought the story full circle. Woulda...coulda...shoulda.

As a big story develops, save the important shots and interesting sound bites that did not necessarily make air this time around. Lay down long shots of the scene or any action associated with the story so someday when someone is working with it in the Avid, they have lots of long tails to use for dissolves and effects. And document it! Include a log of cross streets, interview's names and titles and the exact date each piece of video was shot.

There will be the annual stories like wildfire, hurricane or tornado season where this will make the file video hunt a snap and prevent all the stories from looking the same.

Try to institute a photog master tape system instead of the traditional reporter masters. In the world of three year contracts with a first year opt-out and voided non-compete clauses, reporters don't stick around television stations as long as they used to. But most stations still base their archive tape system on reporter masters. Whereas if you look at most photography staffs in larger markets, half are new guys who will be gone before they are vested and half have been there since the earth cooled. Chances are, photographers are going to be at the station longer and have a better idea of what is on their master tapes. Not every story I have shot sticks to my memory verbatim. But any thing you shoot creates "brain lint", little particles that hang around in your head because you touched the story. Photog's heads are a station's best archive system.

When I started on the "Good-bye Old Sky 12" piece, I put out the all points bulletin to our veteran KPNX'ers and it was amazing the images they have trapped in their minds of helicopter moments. I spent about 30 hours going through 3/4", MII, Beta Oxide and SX tapes with just "Sky 12" on the spine, who knows what else lingers on the unmarked masters. Divers flipping backwards off the skids of the old Long Ranger in 1985...wild horses racing along a mesa in Monument Valley from 1987, people in their cars being washed downriver from 1992, a double rainbow arched over the downtown skyline from 1995, a police car ramming a car jacker wielding a weapon from 2002. It was an amazing journey through how our station has evolved in it's use of the helicopter over two decades. An all I had to do was crunch it down to 1:30.

f you want to check out the final product:

(The number one question I get about the piece is "what is the opening piece of music"? Bach's Suite No. 1 (Prelude) in G Major for Unaccompanied Cello performed by Yo-yo Ma.)

We have had New Sky 12 for about a month now and I still get startled when I walk in the hangar, "Is that ours?" Admittedly, the new camera is taking some getting used to, it is a different beast from the Wescams I have wielded for the past ten years, and hanging by a harness with the doors off with a clunky gyro zoom lens on my shoulder before that. The Hi-Definition Cineflex system we have is serial number 2, or as our news director called it, "the museum piece in ten years". For more on that, I will put something in Product Reviews (awhile back I promised Kevin I would try to keep to 2000 words, I know I am already at 3500 on this page).

No matter what kind of helicopter I ride in, from the agile little egg of a Hughes 500 to the massive military monster of a Black hawk, there is an etiquette I follow:


Stay away from the tail rotor. Actually, this first thing goes way beyond good habits and qualifies as "Don't be an idiot". We don't even want to think about what happens when stupidity meets any moving part on an aircraft. Also, even though the blades on the main rotor seem like they are high above your head, stay low when they are moving. Be careful when climbing up into the helicopter when the blades are rotating, we are inclined to "pop-up" on the skid or step and that puts your skull way too close to stuff it can't stop.

It is an Aircraft, It is a ship, It is a helicopter, IT IS NOT AND NEVER SHOULD BE A CHOPPER! The very first pilot I flew with years ago put it simply, "A chopper is a kitchen appliance". "Chopper" is a improper term to most pilots and mechanics. It kills your credibility. I have the good fortune to fly with all military trained pilots who served in Vietnam and have extensive years flying law enforcement missions. They are intense, precise and have high expectations of what we should do as the photographer. Chopper is one of those terms that is a quick indicator that someone does not have allot of exposure to helicopters. "Chopper" is kind of like saying we are here to "film" a story. I have never shot film in the name of TV news (but God bless those who have). Nor does our helicopter "chop" anything. If the helicopter is chopping, we have much bigger issues than bad term usage. Yes, it gets used all the time, even on hyper-credible newscasts like the News Hour with Jim Lehrer and NPR, but it is still improper. If your reporter starts to use it on the air or when talking to pilots, STOP THEM!

It is acceptable to use the following:

Aircraft---"This aircraft is blue and gold."

Helicopter---"Our previous helicopter looked like it was painted by committee."

Ship---"The new ship arrived on January 9, she is a jaw dropper." Ships are referred to in the feminine sense, so it is okay to call it a "her", you probably should not do it on the air, but it's okay around the hangar.

The aircraft's call sign---Air traffic control knows us as "Sky 12". (Here is some gray area, most markets have a Chopper 4 or News Chopper 11---a name obviously derived by marketing people who thought it sounded cool …the same ones who demand that a crew come out and "film" the anchors at a public appearance. If air traffic control calls it Chopper 4, then go ahead, if they call it something else, call it something else.)

The aircraft's make and model---"The A-Star B-2 will handle our hot summers much better than the Bell Long Ranger III" OR "Jimmy has thousands of hours of stick time on the 206, and quite a bit on the 407."

The aircraft's tail number---" 553 Hotel Delta is on the ramp right now waiting to be refueled" Again, if someone slips you a room key, shouldn't it be for room 553 in the Hotel Delta? sounds like a classy place. Tail numbers are cool.

Be the pilot's extra eyes and ears. Even in the ol' Sky Pig, we were hurling through the air at 90 knots. It does not sound like a lot when you compare it to our new babe at 140, but when there are four media helicopters, two law enforcement ships, air evac and lots of small plane traffic working in the same area, it is amazing how quickly someone can close in on your personal airspace. As your pilot talks to the tower or other aircraft, help keep an eye on those other guys. Imagine the helicopter is sitting on a clock face and the nose is always at 12 and the tail is at 6. You will then call out to the pilot anything you spot around you in relation to the clock's face---I've got Newshawk at 7 o'clock, Sky Fox at 11 and Ranger 41 at 9 o'clock low (meaning his is considerably below your altitude, obviously "high" is just the opposite---"I have the Cessna at 10 o'clock high). Also, if you can, try to listen to Air Traffic Control. In our helicopter, we have the intercom, the station 2-way, three scanners, TV off-air, the air-to-air frequency where the helicopters talk to each other and ATC all in our ears at the same time. It is a lot to keep track of, but the tower always comes first. By listening to ATC, you will know where the other aircraft are and what the pilot will be doing next.

When you get out, make it click. As you get out of the aircraft, click your seatbelt back together. This is so if the pilot takes off without someone in that seat, he does not have to worry about part of it being caught outside the door and beating up the exterior panels.

You ride, you refuel. Most fuel farms operate under banker's hours. If you are out flying for the early or late shows, the fuel guys will be watching your show from home. When you land, offer to help refuel the aircraft. It is kind of the same principle as offering gas money at the end of a road trip, if you ever want to go again, it is the right thing to do. Refueling is messy and it smells funny (personally, I like the smell of Jet A, just not infused on my skin or all over my ski jacket such as a few weeks ago). But it is also one of those skills that is really cool on your resume.

I can't wait for my first car chase with the new camera (here in Phoenix, we have "Car Chase Tuesday"). The helicopter smells new. The paint job is a knock out. It goes so fast. It has so many fascinating pieces of equipment like Nextrad Weather on the Garmin units, amazing scanners, and the cleanest ENG set-up anyone has ever seen. We can finally do a vertical take-off instead of having to drag our nose along the taxiway for a hundred yards. Tail winds are no longer an issue. But the thing I am most excited seats! After a two hour news cruise in 19 year old cushions, you would swear you had a broken butt bone.

Of course, like a good news veteran, Old Sky 12 is not going into full retirement, more of a freelance life. The company we lease New Sky 12 from bought the old girl and is using her as a back up ship for several markets where they have helicopters. She is even supposed to come home to Phoenix once in awhile.

We got in another shipment of Hot Pods this week. No thanks, I am going to go out and sit in Sky 12 instead and take a few breaths of new helicopter smell.

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