Growing up I remember driving by a Bell 206 sitting on the ramp with the local news station’s logo covering half the helicopter on the way to the terminal to pickup my dad from a business trip. I thought it was pretty cool and asked myself “How do I become a helicopter news pilot?” At that time, I had no idea I would actually become a pilot, much less a news helicopter pilot at some point in my career. I ended up flying that gig for a few years before moving on, earning a pretty good salary.
The industry term for this news helicopter pilot job is Electronic News Gathering (ENG). Across the United States, most large cities have at least one news helicopter covering the area, if not multiple. While some news stations own and operate their helicopters themselves, many simply contract with a company to provide that service. Some of these companies are operators that have those contracts mixed with other services, such as Welk Aviation. Others make that their primary business, such as Helicopters Inc. and U.S. Helicopters Inc. Common helicopters used are the Bell 206, Bell 407, and Airbus AS350. Some stations can be found using Robinson R44s for ENG as well.
Stations that go the contract route will either have an operation under Part 91 or 135, depending on the extent of the operations requested, though many commonly stick with the Part 91 option as photo flights, and work with the limitations that the regulations come with. While the pilot is an employee of the helicopter company, the station may elect to have their own employee(s) act as the photographer(s): operating the various cameras and transmitting equipment aboard the aircraft.
Helicopter pilot experience requirements are pretty similar between companies. They typically want:
- Commercial Rotorcraft-Helicopter
- Second Class Medical
- Rotorcraft Total Time: >1500
- Turbine Time: >250
- Prior experience in the helicopter series used.
- Relocation to a short distance from the helicopter’s base.
The work schedules can vary widely between locations, as each station has their own plan for incorporating the helicopter into their programming. There may be just one full-time pilot for the whole day, or multiple pilots that split the shifts up. Here are four Monday-Friday schedules I have seen:
- 0530-0930; 1430-1830. One full-time pilot.
- 0500-0900; 1500-1900. One full-time pilot.
- 0900-1300; 1400-1800. One full-time pilot.
- 0530-1430; 1430-1830. One full-time pilot and one part-time pilot.
Locations will usually have at least one backup pilot on the contract, their job entailing covering some weekends or select shifts per month, and relief for vacations and illness. The hours the full-time pilot is not at the office may be spent in an on-call status, with a pre-determined response time required, usually under an hour.
Your shift may consist of routine traffic flights, where you follow a set route or just patrol flexibly for traffic issues and accidents in the area, usually in sync with a live news broadcast. The rest of the time you will basically be hanging out waiting for the word to launch somewhere. You could get sent out for breaking news, the objective being first on the scene. You could get sent out to grab stock imagery for an upcoming story. You could get sent out to cover a pre-planned event, such as a high-profile funeral, local parade, or sporting event.
Three of biggest issues ENG helicopter pilots contend with are:
- Temporary Flight Restrictions
- Flying Neighborly
Temporary Flight Restrictions
When news breaks, the event may be something that Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) are posted for. I have seen a TFR get published and activated for an event one wouldn’t think would justify such a restriction while news helicopters were already orbiting the scene—resulting in their immediate departure of course. I have also been airborne for a regular traffic flight and had been diverted to a major incident. They mentioned a concern of chemicals leaking, which triggered in my mind that a TFR would be published shortly. Instead of flying to the scene, I landed back at our base and did an updated briefing for area. Sure enough, a TFR was just published in the last few minutes and would prevent us from accessing the scene for video.
About ten minutes before every news flight departure—and every flight in general—I would do an official briefing via CSRA Direct User Access Terminal Service (DUATS) for a defined radius that we commonly cover and be sure to check and plot each TFR listed, if any. DUATS keeps a detailed log and copy of that official briefing which can later be used to assist in proving that you complied with 14 CFR 91.103, especially if you fly into a TFR posted after you departed (we talked about issues with TFRs and Aviation Apps previously).
Sporting Event TFRs prevent loitering flight if the helicopter is not being used to support the operations of the station that has the broadcast rights. In a nutshell, if your helicopter isn’t working for the station broadcasting the game, you aren’t flying within 3nm of the stadium from one hour before and one hour after the game. As a pilot, you have to figure out what qualifying stadiums are in your area and then follow their schedules for qualifying games to avoid violations.
The station obviously wants their helicopter over a scene when something happens. The weather might not allow that, and you have to be responsible to make that call. Once, I was asked to go get imagery of tornado damage about 20nm north of our base. The tornado was still there: passing off to the northeast, with other nasty weather in trail. Obviously the weather didn’t support such a flight, and time needed to pass before it would be safe to go. Stations don’t always think about such things.
I have never witnessed a station disregard a decision by myself or another pilot and apply pressure to fly in bad weather. However, there are National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident reports—some fatal—that show such station behavior occurring and thus acting as contributing factors to accidents. Any good operator these days will stand by a pilot’s decision to not fly, and not pressure them further into such.
An additional thing to consider is what kind of weather you are showing on camera. While you can fly 100% legally per company policy, flight manual limitations, and aviation regulations, an image shown by the camera could make a viewer who happens to work for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) question the flight’s legality and waste your time. Make sure your photographer is aware of this issue, simply to save you the hassle.
Helicopters are noisy, and those used in ENG operations typically aren’t the newer, quieter designs. Occasionally, residents or certain businesses call the news station—their logo is blatantly painted all over the aircraft—and complain. When this happens, the station may elect to send you away from the scene or ask for you to make adjustments to accommodate.
Some locations may require you to develop a route that avoids them completely, simply for positive public relations. Remember, the camera onboard likely has zoom capability, which you can use to fly higher or farther from the scene to accommodate noise-sensitive areas.
Even without complaint, a few considerate principles should be applied to ENG flights:
- If staying over the scene for a prolonged time, avoid orbiting or hovering over residential areas for more than a few minutes at a time.
- If avoiding sensitive sites is impossible for the scene you are covering, at least alter your orbits or hover locations to disperse the noise around the area for different intervals.
- Adjust flight to accommodate noise abatement procedures already established for your aircraft, if applicable.
Helicopter Association International (HAI) has a Noise Abatement Procedures page with manufacturer recommended guidelines for a wide range of helicopters. Being familiar with these and flying accordingly will help further mitigate noise irritation. As an example, they recommend that pilots of Bell 206L-Series helicopters fly a minimum of 1,200’ AGL and to keep noise-sensitive areas to the right of the helicopter when operating.1
You’ll eventually have to interact with other orbiting news, medical, and law enforcement helicopters on a scene. The FAA has an Advisory Circular (91-88 Electronic News Gathering Operations) and HAI has a safety guide (ENG Aviation Safety) both covering issues with regards to multiple aircraft over stationary and moving scenes. Get used to using the helicopter air-to-air frequency.
Being a news helicopter pilot is one of the most relaxed jobs I’ve ever worked—not in a bad context. You have policies, regulations, and safety issues just like any other helicopter pilot job, but you typically don’t have to wear a uniform, don’t have to attend daily meetings, get to hang out and watch television or play video games when not flying, and otherwise just chill out. Your only “work” consists of simple flight paperwork, maintenance tracking, paying attention to the weather, cleaning the helicopter, and communicating with the station. The biggest con is that you are tied to a close distance to that helicopter even when not on shift, unless a backup pilot is available.
Every flight is somewhat different: you be exercising your quick-decision skills when it comes to navigation, especially if operating around various classes of controlled airspace as usually found around large cities. If you go down this path, remember to keep up on your studies in your downtime so as not to get complacent.
In an orbit,
- Helicopter Association International. Noise Abatement Procedures: Bell 206. Retrieved December 25, 2016 from https://www.rotor.org/Resources/NoiseAbatementProcedures/Bell206.aspx