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.