The National Transportation Safety Board determined today that the probable cause of the 2007 midair collision involving two electronic news gathering (ENG) helicopters in Phoenix, Arizona 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 electronic news gathering operation. Also contributing to the accident was the lack of formal procedures for Phoenix- area ENG pilots to follow regarding the conduct of these operations.
On July 27, 2007, two electronic news gathering helicopters collided in midair in Phoenix, Arizona while covering a police pursuit. At the time of the accident, three other news gathering helicopters, from local stations, were covering the event, and a police helicopter was operating below the news helicopters. Each helicopter had a pilot- reporter onboard and four of the five ENG helicopters had a photographer on board videotaping the event. All four occupants in the two accident helicopters were killed.
ENG helicopters are equipped with an on-board system with the capability of transmitting audio and video live to a television station. ENG pilots and helicopter police operating in their area, are expected to communicate their position and intentions with one another using a dedicated air-to-air frequency. However, the accident pilots' attention was focused on the changing situation on the ground and their broadcast.
The Safety Board's investigation revealed that the last time the two pilots coordinated their helicopters' positions or intentions to each other was about four minutes before the collision. Additionally, when the accident occurred, the pilots were reporting the unfolding events on the ground, which diverted their attention away from other tasks such as maintaining their helicopter's stated position and altitude and scanning the area for potential collision hazards.
"A pilot's first and primary responsibility is to operate the aircraft in a safe manner," said NTSB Acting Chairman Mark V. Rosenker. "Assigning someone else, other than the flying pilot, to perform the reporting duties in ENG operations and improved technology to assist pilots in distinguishing between the shape of airborne objects operating below them and the surrounding terrain will prevent accidents like this from occurring again," he added.
As a result of its investigation, the Safety Board made ten recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, including to 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 remains manageable under all conditions.
Other recommendations to the FAA included requiring the installation of crash-resistant recording systems, incorporating pertinent information into an advisory circular of best practice guidelines for ENG operations, installing a crash-resistant flight recorder system, hosting annual ENG helicopter conferences to discuss operational and safety issues, developing letters of agreement for aircraft to specify minimum horizontal and vertical separation requirements, and requiring ENG operators to use high- visibility blade paint schemes and improved anti-collision (strobe) lights on their aircraft.
A synopsis of the Board's report, including the probable cause, conclusions, and recommendations, is available on the NTSB's website under "Board Meetings." The Board's full report will be available on the website in several weeks.