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A unique perspective
Jay Gormley, a reporter for CBS 11 in Dallas, has spent about a decade working with a helicopter to report what was happening on the ground and has seen the helicopter’s relationship with electronic newsgathering grow as helicopters become an increasingly vital tool for news coverage At first, it was primarily a means to get to the site of breaking news quickly. Then in February 2003, he went up to get a bird’s eye view of the aftermath of an ice storm that left more than two inches on many area roadways. He spent eight hours in the air that day, offering a unique vantage point in his coverage.
“It basically shut down the city of
Those news events are a way of life for broadcast stations these days, and they make full use of helicopters in getting information out to the public.
“The helicopter has become a necessisity for TV stations,” said Tom Wagner, marketing director for Helicopters Inc., the company that leases the
A growing role
Wagner has worked in the industry nearly two decades, and he’s seen the helicopter’s role in news gathering change.
“Pre-O.J. Simpson days, you couldn’t financially put more than a JetRanger on any contract in the
A gyro-stabilized system has a camera mounted in a turret on the helicopter’s nose. Gyroscopes inside the housing stabilize the lens and provide a steady picture for TV viewers.
Before that became a routine piece of electronic newsgathering equipment, the gear weighed less than 100 pounds mostly a hand-held camera that an operator pointed out the window or a sliding door. The nose-mounted systems weigh anywhere from 300 to 500 pounds. That necessitated a larger aircraft with greater endurance, which lead to the LongRanger and 407 entering the market in greater numbers.
Camera manufacturers have moved forward, as well. Older gyro-stabilized systems were large and cumbersome. Today’s cameras are smaller, lighter and easier to use on a helicopter.
“That’s what really gave this whole industry a huge shot in the arm,” Wagner said. “Without the camera system, the helicopter for what it’s being used for today is pretty useless. It’s all about getting the picture, getting the quality image.”
Getting the picture
Such picture quality from a camera that can nearly read a license plate off a car even at 1,000 feet coupled makes the helicopter a valuable news-gathering tool.
“We get the shots a ground crew can’t get,” Channel 11 pilot Hector Cavazos said. “Our mobility greatly enhances our ability to cover things like a high-speed car chase or a fire. We can get in closer than a ground crew.”
Because a helicopter news team can get such spectacular shots from further away, it’s also a safer since way to report the news from a dangerous situation.
Those high-powered tools mean airborne journalists must take care not to give away information that could be a detriment to the situation on the ground, such as revealing the tactical position of a SWAT team trying to end a standoff. More police departments these days ask news helicopters to back off or even restrict the airspace around operations.
“We never want to jeopardize anyone’s life. If they tell us to back off, we back off. That’s why having the best possible lenses on that helicopter are vital,” Gormley said.
“You can get really close in now. That’s essential because in instances like hostage situations, the airspace is restricted. If you can have a camera that can zoom in from far away, you can appease the police department, stay out of the restricted space and still get your story.”
How much time the helicopter spends in the air varies a great deal. Sometimes, the helicopter stays parked in the hangar. Other days, it barely stays on the ground.
“We average about 40 or 50 hours a month. During a ratings period, we average 70 to 90 hours,” Cavazos said. “It’s interesting. We get to see what’s going on before the rest of the community because we’re on the spot.”
When it does fly, it’s usually with a pilot and cameraman. Reporters go along on really big stories. The Chopper 11 front passenger seat has monitors to see what’s being shot, as well as a “talent camera” to film the journalist for broadcast.
In the back, the cameraman has a DVD recorder, police scanner, laptop, two monitors and mixer board. The camera controls rest on his lap, with a joystick to direct the lens. Internal microphones let anyone in the cabin speak with the station and each other.
A microwave transmitter allows the air crew to send a live picture rather than taping and editing a feed that is often simulcast over the Internet.
“The technology we have now is incredible. It allows us to cover anything we need,” said Ryan Kimball, a CBS 11 cameraman. “You want to get to breaking news as quickly as possible. The helicopter lets you get there in half the time and be instantly live. When we’re on scene, I’m ready to shoot right away, which is something you can’t do on the ground.”
Because of its speed, the chopper often gets the first call on breaking news. A reporter may not be able to make it through traffic to the scene on time.
“With 24-hour cable stations, 190 channels and the Internet, news is about immediacy,” Gormley said. “We’re in an instant gratification generation. People want it right away. Without a helicopter, you’re out of luck. You won’t be able to compete because you won’t be able to provide news right away.”
Bell Helicopter is proud of the pioneering role it has played in the application of helicopters in news gathering.
About Bell Helicopter
Bell Helicopter is an industry-leading producer of commercial and military, manned and unmanned vertical lift aircraft and the pioneer of the revolutionary tilt rotor aircraft. Globally recognized for world-class customer service, innovation and superior quality, Bell’s global workforce serves customers flying Bell aircraft in more than 120 countries.
About Textron Inc.
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