A Question of Liability: Who Caused the 2007 News Chopper Crash?

Monday, July 27 marks the second anniversary of the tragic news helicopter crash in Phoenix that resulted in the deaths of four men, two from Channel 3 and two from Channel 15.

Soon after the accident, a representative of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that his agency would issue an accident report within nine months.

That report is yet to be released, perhaps due to the sensitive nature of liability and the lawsuits that will follow. In other words, the NTSB wants to get it right because millions of dollars are riding on the pending lawsuits.

But this Monday at 10 a.m., attorney Pat McGroder plans to hold a news conference to release new details and “dramatic video” of the cause of the crash. Additionally, he will call for “sweeping changes in the requirements for the operation of news helicopters.”

Several local television news helicopters were lined up in close proximity that day to cover a police chase of a hijacked vehicle in downtown Phoenix. The Channel 3 and Channel 15 helicopters collided and both crashed in Indian Steele Park. Each chopper included a pilot and a photographer/reporter.

Two lawsuits were filed in August of 2008, one by the two sons of Rick Krolak, the reporter passenger on board Channel 15, and one by their half-brother. According to a report by Channel 15 last year, the suit by the older Krolak brother blames “one or both” pilots’ negligence for the collision.  It targets U.S. Helicopters, the company that employed ABC15’s pilot, Craig Smith. It also targets KTVK, Inc., and its parent company, the Belo Corporation, that employed Channel 3’s pilot, Scott Bowerbank. The lawsuit states each company is “responsible and liable for the conduct and actions” of their respective pilot.
 
Channel 15 reported in 2008 that the younger Krolak’s suit blames the actions of his father’s pilot, Smith, and U.S. Helicopters for his father’s death. The lawsuit states Smith, “carelessly, recklessly, and negligently failed and neglected to properly control the Channel 15 News helicopter so as to prevent the death of passenger photojournalist Richard Krolak.”

This suit implicates Channel 15 as being at fault, since it does not target the Channel 3 pilot.  The Channel 3 helicopter was equipped with a SkyWatch traffic advisory system, but the Channel 15 helicopter did not have a traffic advisory and collision avoidance system aboard.

The website “Helicoper Crashes,” operated by the Houston-based Willis Law Firm, reports on interviews by an NTSB official with controllers from the Phoenix air traffic control tower.

At 12:23 p.m. that day, a police helicopter gained permission to enter air space at 1,800 feet over the downtown Phoenix area in response to the car jacking and the ensuing police car chase.

Three minutes later, Channel 15 obtained permission to enter the same air space – at 2,000 feet. Within 30 seconds, Channel 12’s helicopter came in at 2,500 feet.

At 12:34, a new controller came on duty at the Sky Harbor control tower. Less than a minute later, the Channel 5 chopper joined the media frenzy at 2,200 feet. Channel 3 was also en route, just 70 seconds behind.

At 12:44, the Channel 10 helicopter joined the chopper swarm and less than two minutes later reported a mid-air collision.

The police helicopter reported that at first Channel 15 was on the left side of Channel 3 separated by a reasonable difference. Then they moved closer together. After the collision, Channel 3 broke into many pieces, Channel 15 remained in the air for a second, and then dove nose-first into the ground. There were no reports of erratic movements prior to the collision, and no unusual sounds or smoke.

Did the Channel 3 chopper receive a stronger blow from the collision, causing it to break up and crash first? Did the Channel 15 chopper cause that collision?

Perhaps the Monday news conference will shed new light on this question of fault – leading to more lawsuits.

2 thoughts on “A Question of Liability: Who Caused the 2007 News Chopper Crash?

  1. arizona today

    Aircraft Accident Report Midair Collision of Electronic News Gathering Helicopters KTVK-TV, Eurocopter AS350B2, N613TV, and U.S. Helicopters, Inc., Eurocopter AS350B2, N215TV

    Phoenix, Arizona
    July 27, 2007

    NTSB Number: AAR-09-02
    NTIS Number: PB2009-910402
    Adopted January 28, 2009

    EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

    On July 27, 2007, about 1246 mountain standard time, two electronic news gathering (ENG) helicopters, N613TV and N215TV, collided in midair while maneuvering in Phoenix, Arizona. The Eurocopter AS350B2 helicopters, from local channels 3 and 15, had been covering a police pursuit. N613TV, the channel 3 helicopter, was operated by KTVK-TV, and N215TV, the channel 15 helicopter, was operated by U.S. Helicopters, Inc., under contract to KNXV-TV. Each helicopter had a pilot-reporter and a photographer on board. The occupants on board both helicopters were killed, and the helicopters were destroyed by impact forces and postcrash fire. The helicopters were operating under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. No flight plans had been filed. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident.

    PROBABLE CAUSE
    The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was both pilots’ failure to see and avoid the other helicopter. Contributing to this failure was the pilots’ responsibility to perform reporting and visual tracking duties to support their station’s ENG operation. Contributing to the accident was the lack of formal procedures for Phoenix-area ENG pilots to follow regarding the conduct of these operations.

    The safety issues discussed in this report focus on the limitations associated with the primary method of separation used during ENG operations; methods for improving an ENG pilot’s awareness of other helicopters operating in the same area; and the need for (1) meetings of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and ENG personnel to discuss operational procedures and manage risk, (2) ENG best practices guidelines, and (3) flight recorder systems for smaller aircraft. Safety recommendations concerning these issues are addressed to the FAA.

    NEW RECOMMENDATIONS
    As a result of the investigation of this accident, the National Transportation Safety Board makes the following recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration:
    Require electronic news gathering operators to assign reporting responsibilities to someone other than the flying pilot unless it can be determined that the pilot’s workload would remain manageable under all conditions. (A-09-02)

    Require electronic news gathering operators to use high-visibility blade paint schemes and high-visibility anticollision lights on their aircraft. (A-09-03)
    Develop standards for helicopter cockpit electronic traffic advisory systems so that pilots can be alerted to the presence of other aircraft operating in the same area regardless of their position. (A-09-04)

    Once standards for helicopter cockpit electronic traffic advisory systems are developed, as requested in Safety Recommendation A-09-04, require electronic news gathering operators to install this equipment on their aircraft. (A-09-05)

    Host annual electronic news gathering (ENG) helicopter conferences by major metropolitan region to discuss operational and safety issues affecting all ENG operations as well as those issues that pertain to the specific region. (A-09-06)

    On the basis of the safety issues identified at the regional conferences discussed in Safety Recommendation A-09-06, develop letters of agreement (LOAs) or amend existing LOAs to specify minimum horizontal and vertical aircraft separation requirements. (A-09-07)

    Incorporate pertinent information from Helicopter Association International’s ENG [electronic news gathering] Aviation Safety Manual into an advisory circular detailing best practices for ENG operations. (A-09-08)

    Require the installation of a crash-resistant flight recorder system on all newly manufactured turbine-powered, nonexperimental, nonrestricted-category aircraft that are not equipped with a flight data recorder and are operating under 14 Code of Federal Regulations Parts 91, 121, or 135. The crash-resistant flight recorder system should record cockpit audio (if a cockpit voice recorder is not installed), a view of the cockpit environment to include as much of the outside view as possible, and parametric data per aircraft and system installation, all to be specified in European Organization for Civil Aviation Equipment document ED-155, “Minimum Operational Performance Specification for Lightweight Flight Recorder Systems,” when the document is finalized and issued. (A-09-09) (Supersedes Safety Recommendation A-03-62)

    Require all existing turbine-powered, nonexperimental, nonrestricted-category aircraft that are not equipped with a cockpit voice recorder and are operating under 14 Code of Federal Regulations Parts 91, 121, or 135 to be retrofitted with a crash-resistant flight recorder system. The crash-resistant flight recorder system should record cockpit audio, a view of the cockpit environment to include as much of the outside view as possible, and parametric data per aircraft and system installation, all to be specified in European Organization for Civil Aviation Equipment document ED-155, “Minimum Operational Performance Specification for Lightweight Flight Recorder Systems,” when the document is finalized and issued. (A-09-10) (Supersedes Safety Recommendation A-03-64)

    Require all existing turbine-powered, nonexperimental, nonrestricted-category aircraft that are not equipped with a flight data recorder and are operating under 14 Code of Federal Regulations Parts 91, 121, or 135 to be retrofitted with a crash-resistant flight recorder system. The crash-resistant flight recorder system should record cockpit audio (if a cockpit voice recorder is not installed), a view of the cockpit environment to include as much of the outside view as possible, and parametric data per aircraft and system installation, all to be specified in European Organization for Civil Aviation Equipment document ED-155, “Minimum Operational Performance Specification for Lightweight Flight Recorder Systems,” when the document is finalized and issued. (A-09-11) (Supersedes Safety Recommendation A-03-65)

    PREVIOUSLY ISSUED RECOMMENDATIONS CLASSIFIED IN THIS REPORT
    The following safety recommendations are classified “Closed-Unacceptable Action/Superseded” in section 2.7 of this report:

    Require the installation of a crash-protected image recording system on all turbine-powered, nonexperimental, nonrestricted-category aircraft that are manufactured after January 1, 2007, that are not equipped with a flight data recorder, and that are operating under 14 Code of Federal Regulations Parts 135 and 121 or that are being operated
    full-time or part-time for commercial or corporate purposes under Part 91. (A-03-62) (Superseded by Safety Recommendation A-09-09)

    Require all turbine-powered, nonexperimental, nonrestricted-category aircraft that are manufactured prior to January 1, 2007, that are not equipped with a cockpit voice recorder, and that are operating under 14 Code of Federal Regulations Parts 91, 135, and 121 to be retrofitted with a crash-protected image recording system by January 1, 2007. (A-03-64) (Superseded by Safety Recommendation A-09-10)

    Require all turbine-powered, nonexperimental, nonrestricted-category aircraft that are manufactured prior to January 1, 2007, that are not equipped with a flight data recorder, and that are operating under 14 Code of Federal Regulations Parts 135 and 121 or that are being used full-time or part-time for commercial or corporate purposes under Part 91 to be retrofitted with a crash-protected image recording system by January 1, 2010. (A-03-65) (Superseded by Safety Recommendation A-09-11)

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