Above and Beyond With helicopter footage all the rage nationally, local TV news competitors WBAL and WJZ take to the air in hopes of sending ratings sky high.

October 26, 1998|By DEL QUENTIN WILBER | DEL QUENTIN WILBER,SUN STAFF

Pilot Patty Smith, jockeying a helicopter for Channel 11, hovered over the plane wreckage below, filming live images for the 5 o'clock news.

Working the controls, speaking in clipped sentences over the radio, Smith kept the bright-red Robinson R-44 at 1,000 feet, well below the drooping gray clouds.

She has been flying for WBAL since August, covering traffic snarls and jackknifed tractor-trailers, apartment fires and shooting scenes. But this was different.

Smith and her back-seat camera operator were reporting the death of a colleague, a traffic pilot for a Washington station who crashed in fog last week while patrolling the roads near Bowie.

"It was an odd feeling, a brother-in-arms thing," Smith says. "It reminds you about the risk involved. But I still feel safer in the helicopter than on the highways."

Smith is part of a growing industry in the United States - covering daily television news from the air.

Driven by increasing competition, with the indelible image of a Ford Bronco driving down a Los Angeles freeway four years ago burned into the national memory, TV stations across the country are gathering more news with helicopters loaded with gyro-cams, microwave transmitters and infrared cameras.

The sky war came to Baltimore last July. Channel 11 (WBAL) and Channel 13 (WJZ) both began daily coverage from the air, oddly enough on the same day, initiating a new era of TV coverage for the area.

"That's been the big trend the last couple years," says Leroy Tatom, chairman of the National Broadcast Pilots Association. "Helicopters are not cheap by any means, but television news seems to be shifting more toward spot news coverage."

About 200 stations now operate helicopters, Tatom says. A few use planes, like the one that crashed outside Washington, but planes cannot hover over scenes indefinitely the way helicopters can.

Industry observers say TV stations are competing for viewers who wield remote controls like never before, flipping to cable news - 24 hours a day - demanding more graphics, better effects. As the line between news and entertainment continues to merge, helicopters often offer stunning images of carnage and car pile-ups.

"Police can rope off a crime scene, but it is hard to rope off the skies," says Herbert Altschull, a professor of media studies and history at Johns Hopkins University. "Things have really changed, a competitive push has taken place."

Channel 11's and 13's news directors decline to discuss the costs of their helicopters, leased from two national outlets. Recently, Helicopter magazine reported stations pay between $20,000 and $75,000 a month to operate news helicopters. On the open market, Channel 11's R-44 costs about $600,000, and Channel 13's Bell Jet Ranger exceeds $1 million.

The financial burden has kept away other competitors, including Channel 2 (WMAR) and Channel 45 (WBFF), where station managers say the occasional rental of a helicopter serves their viewers just fine. But as more stations begin to operate helicopters, industry obersvers say, daily coverage will increasingly rely on images from the sky.

And, it seems, just having a helicopter is not enough - you need one that's faster, sleeker, bigger and flies higher.

"This is a competitive tool," said WBAL news director Princell Hair. "I know their helicopter is bigger but I'm told ours is faster."

"The type of helicopter WJZ-TV selected is technologically superior to others, including the Robinson R-44 [flown by WBAL, which] ... is slower," gushed a WJZ press release.

Usually, the pilots mask their rivalry beneath a facade of stern-faced concern for safety. Sometimes, though, their competitive spirit breaks through.

"I can get to the airport in 22 minutes from a dead sleep," said Channel 13's pilot, Roy Taylor, 44, a veteran who once commanded the Baltimore County Police air unit.

"I can make it in 20 minutes," said Smith, 40, a new recruit from Fort Myers, Fla.

Waiting for news

About 5:45 a.m., with blue and orange runway lights twinkling in pre-dawn darkness at Glenn L. Martin State Airport, Smith slips her tall frame into the R-44 and flips a few switches. She likes her speedy, stable and fuel-efficient bird. This morning, like most, she flies traffic duty for two hours, patrolling the Beltway, I-83 and I-70.

About 8:30 a.m., she lands, leaves the 'copter parked on the tarmac and waits for her pager to buzz with news. If a call comes, she flies a reporter and camera operator out to cover traffic accidents, shooting scenes, apartment fires, from Eutaw Street to Ocean City. On traffic flights, no reporter goes; the camera operator reports and films.

"Every single flight is different," said Smith, speaking in the measured tones of an airline pilot addressing passengers before landing. "Breaking news can happen anywhere."

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