Aviation News

August 25, 2011

A Day in the Life of a News Chopper Camera Operator

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By: Ken McQuillan
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Camera controls.
Camera controls.
This particular Thursday starts out like any other day. I drive to the small airport in a northern suburb of Detroit. Stopping along the way for some breakfast and a quick read of the local paper, before reporting to the hangar at 10:00am.

Once I arrive at the hangar, I go into my office and clear out the previous days flight logs, and get everything ready for the day’s flights. Meanwhile, the pilot of the helicopter is in the hangar, performing his routine pre-flight inspection.

Astar

Astar N36CC films news for Fox 2, Local 4 and ABC 7 in Detroit. (Photo by Ken McQuillan)

As the ramp attendant pulls the AStar 350 B2 out of the hangar and places it in position on the flight line, I make the obligatory call to our dispatch desk, who fields requests to fly from our three local network affiliates. In a three-station pool situation, the dispatcher has to receive at least two requests for the same event in order for us to fly. All three will then get the video.

On this day, the dispatcher has nothing for us immediately, so the pilot and I decide to do a little house cleaning, like cleaning the windscreen and all other glass on board. We also go through a quick inventory of what we have onboard, such as spare life vests, spare headsets, maps, charts, etc. We always carry those items, and we like to be sure they are where they are supposed to be.

It doesn’t take long, but our first assignment comes in at 10:25 am. By 10:30 am, we are in the ship with rotors turning, and I am going through my pre-launch camera check. I always check the camera before every launch for proper operation, as well as for any foreign objects on the lens. The camera system is a nose mounted FLIR HD gyro-stabilized system with a Sony HD Camera mounted in the gimbal. I have a pretty elaborate control panel that sits on my lap, which can control every aspect of the camera and gimbal. It’s a far cry from the old days when the camera operator would have to sit with legs hanging out of the door and the camera on the shoulder to get shaky video at best.

FLIR camera

The FLIR camera mount. (Photo by Ken McQuillan)

With all of our pre-launch checks completed, we are airborne at 10:33am and en-route to a suspected house explosion about 10 miles north of the airport. During the flight to the location, I am busy communicating with our dispatcher over the radio, and giving them compass headings from their microwave receivers to our ship so each TV station can lock on to our tracking signal, and follow us anywhere we go during the flight. Once we begin our arrival over the scene, the pilot deploys one of two microwave antennas we have onboard, so we can transmit our video back to each station simultaneously. For this location, we are using our drop-down omni-directional microwave antenna, which stows for takeoff and landing, then deploys during flight. This antenna is what we use 95% of the time. We also have another antenna, which is a directional antenna, which we need to point at a particular microwave receiver, which is used when we need to transmit video over a long distance.

Camera controls.

Camera controls. (Photo by Ken McQuillan)

Once we arrive on scene, I immediately deploy the FLIR camera and begin shooting and transmitting live video back to the TV stations.

When we wrap up the scene, we head back for the airport, land, and immediately get a call to go cover one of our perennial favorites: Ice jams on the St. Clair River which are preventing the passage of ferries to and from a local island. This happens every year in the spring. The shipping lanes get the Coast Guard’s ice breakers, sending ice floes down a connecting canal, which get in the way of the auto ferries. So, we head in that direction, and as always, get video of the vessels locked tight in port with ice everywhere. We then grab the obligatory shot of a nearby ice breaker making it’s way through the ice, just in time to start ferry traffic again.

As soon as we leave the icy river, we get a call to head to a scene right off of the departure end of our airport runway. The call comes in describing a person who had fallen from a balcony of a hotel. We arrive overhead, shot some wide shots of the building, the police activity, onlookers, etc. No victim or ambulance to be found. It turns out that the person jumped off of a balcony on the 7th floor. Needless to say, that story didn’t make the news (TV news usually does not cover suicides).

The fact that we are less than a block away from the airport does not work into our favor this day, as we are immediately dispatched to a location 20 miles to the south, where there’s a report of a body found in a field. This location puts us squarely in the middle of Class D airspace, which necessitates communication with the local control tower. We are in the area so frequently, we know all of the controllers in the towers just by voice! Once we receive our ATC clearance, we advance to the scene, and sadly, that initial report of a body found is accurate, and we do a few orbits over the scene and send back some video of the police activity.

We aren’t done with the third orbit before we got a call from our base, sending us across town to a reported police officer that’s been shot. As far as priority goes, hearing that a police officer may have been shot is pretty much a “stop everything” type of situation, and immediately head to that scene. We arrive to find all sorts of chaos with police, fire and EMS rigs everywhere. The most difficult part of this type of assignment is trying to determine what has happened. There is so much going on, and in several different directions, that it gets difficult to piece it together quickly, and report it to the TV stations. In this instance, we just orbit around the entire scene for a few minutes, while I use the camera to try and get an idea as to what had happened. After a few minutes, I am able to locate the actual spot where the alleged shooting took place. I’m able to get shots of some victims being loaded into ambulances, but no sight of any injured police officer. It turns out that there was an officer shot at, but never hit. Unfortunately, there are several other victims, however, none life threatening.

The author

The author in the cockpit. (Photo by Ken McQuillan)

When we are cleared to leave this last scene, we are asked to grab a few quick shots of a particular building that was on our way back to the airport. We find the subject, perform a few orbits and head off to our base to re-fuel — and hopefully get a break.

At the airport where we are based, we have self-serve fuel pumps, so, once we set down on our landing cart, I go and get the tug and pull the ship around to the pumps. The pilot adds about 100 gallons of Jet-A to the tank, we place the ship back on the flight line, and attempt to grab lunch.

Just as I sit down in my office to eat, the phone rings, and we are off again! This time we have a couple of non-breaking stories to shoot. Actually, the stations just needed some aerial shots of a few particular buildings that were going to be used in stories that afternoon. Even though the assignment wasn’t time-critical, we always go immediately, as we want to make sure we are available for breaking news when it comes.

Once we complete these assignments, we contact the dispatcher from the air and he clears us to return to base. On the way back, however, he sends us to another location at a steel mill where there is a report of a worker being injured in an industrial accident. We immediately do an about-face and head directly to the steel plant. As is common, our route takes us directly over Detroit International Airport and through their Class B airspace. The pilot contacts the approach controller and they clear us directly through their airspace with no problems at all. We are always very cognizant of the controllers’ workload, and always propose another way to the scene, but they always seem to accommodate us.

We arrive at the steel plant just in time to get video of EMS workers loading the worker into their rig, and rush him toward the hospital. We stay in the area to get some video of the emergency crews, and then we head back to the base. Fortunately, the worker suffered only minor injuries.

We arrive back at the base with just enough time to fill out all of the required daily paperwork, and still get off work on time. We come back the next day to do it all over again.