Getting ready to leave for a weekend of canoeing and fun, I logged onto one of my helicopter websites for a final peek. One topic jumped out at me right away: Two news helicopters had just (in fact within that last hour) collided in flight while covering a “car chase” in Phoenix, Arizona. Onboard each helicopter was a pilot/reporter and a cameraman. Four dead, total. The other three(!) helicopters abandoned the car chase; they had a new story to cover.
Immediately, due to the incredible power and reach of the internet, I was able to click on links to the crash. One of them was a video from one of the helicopters actually involved in the midair, complete with the now-dead pilot’s narration, ending with a tense, terse, “Oh, jeez…” just as the image from the camera went haywire.
Mere words cannot express the sadness I feel whenever I hear about fatal helicopter crashes. They hit close. Really close. I can imagine the pilots in the cockpit…happily doing their thing and loving what they’re doing (it’s a trait we all share – no helicopter pilot hates his job)…unaware that they are moments from death…until it suddenly starts to go horribly wrong. I can feel their puzzled helplessness in those last few seconds as they struggle desperately to comprehend what’s happening so they can do something about it. Because that is what we all do up there. It wrenches at my heart and my gut. I didn’t know the pilots who died in Phoenix on Friday, but I’ve known plenty of others.
Then again, death is part of the risk. It is the ultimate price of not doing my job perfectly. I’ve said before, there are no “average” or even “pretty decent” helicopter pilots. You have to be damn good. Otherwise you’re damn dead. And sometimes, even being damn good isn’t enough. By all accounts, the guys in Phoenix were damn good pilots. And yet…
Once upon a time I was a radio traffic-reporter. I’d fly around for two-and-a-half hours, chronicling the travails of the New York City morning highway commuters in little 30-second reports. Composing the reports was not hard, but I found myself spending too much time staring at the roads below and not enough time watching for other helicopters in the busy New York airspace. I knew that, because one day I looked up and saw a corporate helicopter zipping close by from my right-front to left-rear. Luckily, the two pilots onboard saw me well before I saw them and they turned to avoid a collision. They did not say something like, “Watch where you’re f***ing going, willya?” over the radio, but they could have, I guess. That was my wake-up call.
So I know how media pilots can get fixated on what’s happening on the ground and lose what we in the aviation biz call “situational awareness.” Thankfully, it doesn’t happen often. But ironically, the very first pilot/reporter was killed in a mid-air collision. He was a legendary guy named “Captain” Max Schumacher, and he covered ground traffic in Los Angeles for radio station KMPC. He and a police helicopter came together over Dodger Stadium one afternoon in 1966 with the same tragic results.
Okay, shit happens…get over it…move on. So they tell me. But accidents of this type bother me. I know that I’m good, but am I damn good? Man, I hope so. I try to be, is all I can say.
I do know one thing though. I am soon going to work for a guy who is buying a helicopter to use for his business. He’s a conservative guy, and has already told me that he wants the ship equipped with thunderstorm-detection equipment called a “Strike Finder.” It really does just what it says: detects lightning strikes – and lightning is what defines a thunderstorm. The Strike Finder is kind of…well, pricey. And we helicopter pilots usually fly low enough to visually avoid thunderstorms. But I’m not arguing! In fact, I’m going to suggest that we also add a collision-avoidance system to the instrument package. More tools, man – I want as many as I can get.
So we did go canoeing as planned this weekend: Matt, Alisha, Gracie and me. The day could not have been more perfect and the river was beautiful. The pictures taken show four seemingly happy people smiling and having a good time. I tried – didn’t want to spoil the others’ fun - but my heart and my head were not in it. They were with the families of the dead pilots and cameramen in Phoenix as they now try to deal with the aftermath of their shattered lives. I thought about their colleagues; both aviation and t.v. news are small industries and everyone knows each other. Must be a lot of grief out there right now. I would’ve preferred to stay home and be alone with my gloomy thoughts.
It usually takes me a while to process and work through these events. Sometimes quickly, sometimes not, eventually I do. Otherwise I’d never be able to get back in the cockpit. For I am a helicopter pilot. It is what I do, and I love my job.
But sometimes I really hate this business.