Chasing a Story: The 2007 Phoenix news helicopter collision

On the 27th of July 2007, two news helicopters covering a police chase in Phoenix, Arizona collided in midair on live TV, sending both choppers plummeting to their doom in a suburban park. The fiery collision claimed the lives of four reporters and raised serious questions about the way TV stations across America were operating their helicopters. Had the race to provide live coverage of every police chase gone too far? Were the pilots, who doubled as field reporters, being asked to do too much? Before the wreckage had even gone cold, aviation professionals and TV journalists alike were calling into doubt the safety of the existing system. The investigation into the crash would largely affirm these concerns: there were in fact fundamental problems with the way news helicopters were operated, and clearer rules were desperately needed. Fifteen years later, much has indeed changed in this niche industry, and the collision over Phoenix has come to mark the moment local TV stations across America were forced to accept the idea that news is not a zero-sum game.

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The year 2007 fell at the height of a golden age for the uniquely American cultural phenomenon that is the live police pursuit broadcast. In the United States, the exceptionally broad use of pursuit tactics by law enforcement, the proliferation of local cable TV channels, and a media environment with an eye for spectacle had long combined to produce a type of live television drama that is rarely seen in other countries. And when one metropolitan area might have half a dozen competing TV stations, each of which wants to be the first on the scene of an unfolding chase, the prevailing wisdom was that every channel simply must operate a helicopter.

To be sure, news helicopters have many other uses as well, providing aerial views of all manner of news events, from major sports showdowns to building fires to natural disasters. But, at least in the 2000s, a police chase was one of, if not the most common reason for a station to deploy its helicopter, in no small part because chases tend to attract a large number of viewers.

The sprawling metropolis of Phoenix, Arizona is an ideal setting for this type of spectacle, with its car-centered infrastructure, endless grid of straight, high-speed roads, and uncompromising law enforcement culture. It is also home to numerous cable TV stations, some of them independent, others affiliated with national media conglomerates like ABC and Fox News. And in 2007, all of them, without exception, kept one ear on the police scanner and a helicopter on standby.

Shortly after noon on the 27th of July that year, the scanners lit up: police had attempted to pull over a stolen flatbed pickup truck, only for the driver to back the vehicle into a police cruiser before taking off at high speed. KNXV-TV, a local ABC affiliate also known as Channel 15, was the first to get wind of the situation. Channel 15 did not own its own chopper, but it did keep a Eurocopter AS-350 B2 on contract from a company called U.S. Helicopters, along with a dedicated pilot: 47-year-old Craig Smith, a veteran airman with 17 years’ experience who now flew exclusively for KNXV. Upon getting the call about the chase, Smith climbed into the station’s black and yellow helicopter, and by 12:22 he was in the air, headed toward downtown Phoenix. Also traveling with him was Channel 15 photographer Rick Krolak, who would operate the helicopter’s built-in TV camera.

Four minutes after takeoff, Smith made contact with air traffic control at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and requested permission to enter the airport’s Class B airspace. In this restricted airspace close to the airport, all traffic, including light traffic such as low-flying helicopters, was required to announce itself to ATC and follow controllers’ instructions. However, Phoenix control and the news stations had an agreement under which the news helicopters would be cleared to enter the Class B airspace, but would thereafter be left largely to their own devices. Because the news helicopters flew exclusively under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), the pilots were solely responsible for looking out for other VFR aircraft, and in any case they would be flying too close to each other for ATC to anticipate and prevent a collision.

As expected, Channel 15 was not the only helicopter en route to the scene. A competing station, the independent KTVK-TV, also known as Channel 3, launched its own wholly-owned Eurocopter AS-350 at 12:32, under the command of 42-year-old Scott Bowerbank, a well-known figure in the local news community with 20 years’ flying experience. He was joined by photographer Jim Cox, a lifelong reporter known for his skill behind the camera.

By the time the Channel 3 helicopter entered the Class B airspace over central Phoenix, multiple other helicopters were already on the scene. In addition to the Channel 15 helicopter, a police helicopter was closely tracking the chase from an altitude of 1,900 feet (800 feet above ground level), and three other news helicopters also arrived in the area between 12:29 and 12:44, belonging respectively to channels 5, 10, and 12.

As the helicopters approached the scene, they fell into a familiar, albeit informal routine. Upon arriving, each pilot announced their altitude, taking pains to keep some vertical distance from one another: Channel 3 was at 2,000 feet, Channel 5 at 2,200, Channel 10 at 2,400, and Channel 12 at 2,500. Channel 15 was the odd one out, approaching the scene at 1,800 feet before realizing that this would interfere with the police helicopter, after which pilot Craig Smith announced that he would climb to 2,000.

At the same time, the pilots scanned the ground to visually locate the pursuit, with the assistance of the police scanner. Of the five TV stations on scene, four employed so-called “pilot reporters,” including channels 3 and 15, meaning that once they had locked on to the fleeing vehicle, the pilots themselves would be expected to provide commentary. To this end, the helicopters’ cockpits included split screens on the center console showing live feeds from the newsroom and from the camera operated by the on-board photographer.

As the helicopters jockeyed for position, they changed altitudes frequently. At 12:38, Channel 15 pilot Craig Smith announced that he was going up to 2,200 feet; seconds later, Channel 3 pilot Scott Bowerbank said, “TV3’s coming in, we got five — we got four in sight up high, we’re coming in at two thousand.” More communications followed, each pilot identifying other nearby helicopters, announcing intentions, and trying to coordinate their activities.

“Okay, I’ve got Firebird over the gold course, twelve o’clock…”

“See Firebird there? Okay, got him…”

“Lenny, I’m off your nose…”

“Yeah, I’ll just kinda park it right here…”

“Okay, I’m gonna move…”

“Where’s three? Like how far? Oh jeez.”

At 12:41, Channel 15 pilot Craig Smith realized he was directly on top of Channel 3. “Three, I’m right over you,” he said over the common frequency. “Fifteen’s over the top of you.”

“Who you over the top of?” replied Channel 3’s Scott Bowerbank.

“You — you’re — I’m over the top of you,” said Smith.

“Okay, thanks, I’m at two thousand,” said Bowerbank. The helicopters began to diverge at that point, and one minute later, Bowerbank announced, “Okay Craig, I’ve got you in sight.”

“Got you as well,” Smith replied.

This would be the last time Smith and Bowerbank acknowledged each other’s presence, because from that point on, the police chase took front and center. With a trail of cop cars in hot pursuit, the white flatbed pickup rampaged through the streets of downtown Phoenix, violating numerous traffic rules as its unhinged driver desperately tried to get away. All the while, the pilots provided commentary — Smith, live to viewers; Bowerbank, to the studio, where the footage and his comments would be released with a delay.

“Okay, now he’s southbound about ni — Eighth or Ninth Street, Ninth Street and uh, Wellington,” said Smith. “Looks like he may clip another car… nope, didn’t clip it. Almost!”

On Channel 3, Bowerbank was having trouble getting his police scanner to work. His microphone picked up one side of the conversation: “I can’t hear the scanner, our scanner’s not working… Nope, I sure don’t… Feel free to talk in my ear when you know a road… If you keep your mic hot with the police traffic, that would help me…”

On Channel 15, Smith continued his live updates.

“Oh man, this is a wild chase actually,” he said. “This is some kind of construction type truck with some tanks on the back of it. We’re in the area of Indian School and Seventh Street; this guy keeps going in a circle here in the area here, uh, right now he’s up on the curb right around Minnezona; he’s been on the sidewalk, he’s hit several cars here… basically what happened here when this first started, apparently the police pulled this vehicle over, the truck then backed into the police car and then took off, and then we’ve been on this pursuit ever since. Police have used stop sticks, both tires in the back we believe have been blown out, [he’s] weaving all over the side streets; you can see right now as that’s happening here live on ABC 15… now he’s up on the sidewalk again, he’s heading towards the downtown area… what a wild chase!”

On channel 3, Bowerbank’s conversation continued. Photographer Jim Cox could also be heard at times. “We’re gonna miss this if you don’t come here… Okay, Seventh — he’s coming back to Seventh Street — oh come on… Okay I’m gonna back up… Can you zoom in on him? Looks like he’s gonna hit a wall…”

In the background, talking to someone on the ground, Cox said: “I can’t believe they’re not blowing off this damn show. Tell ’em to blow off this damned recipe show… no, just do it.”

Meanwhile on Channel 15, Smith said, “Uh, well, basically the Firebird helicopter is on top of this thing right now, and there are several police cars behind him, I’d say at least ten or fifteen. They’re staying back a good distance, maybe a couple blocks or so, but they are definitely keeping an eye on this guy… now he’s back northbound along Seventh Street here, and he’s going to be approaching Indian School, and, and this guy obviously has no regard for anybody or anything that is in his way. He does not care, as I said before he sideswiped several vehicles, very uncontrollable because of the tires being blown out, Rebecca.”

By this point, Channel 3 had set up a position at about 2,000 feet a couple blocks northwest of the action, and Bowerbank is thought to have put his helicopter into a hover or slow circling pattern. At the same time, Channel 15 was circling the downtown area at 2,200 feet, climbing to 2,300, in a broad rightward arc at relatively high speed.

“He’s gonna hit a car here, so go — uh, stay wide with it,” Bowerbank said to his photographer. “Okay, he missed it — almost got that white truck…. Okay, sounds good… Animation, and up to me. Gotcha. They’re trying to do it, Jim. Standby, he’s gonna get stuck on this construction up here… Alright, if you don’t come now, it’s probably going to end here, so…”

On Channel 15, Smith said, “Ohh, I’m gonna say at least a block behind him now… we’re entering the central area of the downtown, north downtown Phoenix area, as we approach where they’re building the new train track rails there, and it’s just kind of a slow chase right now — he can’t maneuver this vehicle very well. He just actually went through some barricades as you’re seeing this, and again this is all happening live right now, this is all, uh, northbound along Central just south of Indian School, and now he’s eastbound and he just hit some more barricades. Absolutely unbelievable, this guy doesn’t care what he hits.”

At this point, the Channel 3 helicopter began a slow right turn, keeping close above the intersection of North Central Avenue and Indian School Road. Its altitude increased slightly, through 2,100 feet. Simultaneously, Scott Bowerbank began giving his first real commentary. “Hi, Scott Bowerbank up in News Chopper Three,” he began. “We’re following a police chase that’s been going on for about the last thirty minutes here, it’s this white truck, flatbed truck you see here with the tank; there’s about two dozen police cars from the Phoenix police department along with the Phoenix Firebird police helicopter following this guy; it’s unknown at this point what he’s wanted for…”

Concurrently, as the Channel 15 helicopter closed its arc toward the exact same intersection, Craig Smith said, “No. Have no idea, all I know is what Firebird reported to me, that apparently the police pulled this vehicle over and the vehicle then backed into the cruiser; there were no injuries to the police, and just simply took off and that’s how this all ensued.”

At that moment, the truck pulled off the street and into a parking lot, where it was blocked in by two more white pickup trucks. On Channel 3, Bowerbank said, “…It all started about thirty minutes ago at Seventh Street and McDowell, he did try to ram a police car, and we understand — well, he’s pulled over right now, he’s about to get out and looks like he’s starting to run, he’s got several units of Phoenix police on his tail right and, uh — Jim, stay with him…”

The suspect then exited the vehicle and climbed directly through the driver’s door of one of the other trucks. This unexpected carjacking wholly grabbed the attention of both pilots. Distracted by the drama below, they did not realize that they were now on a collision course. It cannot be known for sure whether Channel 3 accidentally ascended from 2,100 feet, whether Channel 15 accidentally descended from 2,300, or both, but one way or another, the helicopters were headed straight for each other, and all eyes were on the ground.

Still circling tightly over the intersection, Bowerbank continued his commentary. “Looks like he’s gonna try and take another vehicle here, we’ll see if they’ll block him in there. Looks like they’ve got him blocked in there, but he did get — “

On Channel 15, Smith said, “Now he’s going into a parking lot, now he’s stopped. We’ll see what happens here. He has stopped, this may be the end of this thing… Okay, he’s out, okay now it’s a foot chase. Now he’s in another vehicle. Okay, okay, doors open — police — okay — ”

At that exact moment, Smith looked up and saw the red and white Channel 3 helicopter directly in front of him. He barely had time to shout “Oh jee — !” before the helicopters slammed into one another, cutting off Scott Bowerbank’s commentary in mid-sentence. The two helicopters’ blades made contact and violently disintegrated, sending shrapnel flying in all directions; parts of the blades sliced through Channel 3’s tail boom and severed it completely. The Channel 3 helicopter rolled inverted and spiraled toward the ground, spewing debris as it fell, while the Channel 15 chopper, also hopelessly crippled, overtook it momentarily before entering an irrecoverable nosedive. The live broadcast on Channel 15 captured a loud crash, an alarm, shaky footage of the ground covered in static, and the sound of screaming before the feed abruptly went dead.

Within moments, it was all over. The Channel 15 helicopter plunged into a field in Steele Indian School Park and exploded, followed seconds later by the Channel 3 helicopter, which came to rest 50 meters away. Two columns of black smoke rose up over the Phoenix skyline, merging and mingling as shocked onlookers rushed toward the burning wreckage, only to realize that no one could possibly have survived.

Several of the other news helicopter pilots either witnessed the crash or spotted the smoke and immediately turned their cameras toward Steele Indian School Park, where flames leapt up into the air beside the duck pond and picnic tables. As they tried to report on the sudden tragedy, fear and horror crept into their voices as they realized that they had just witnessed the deaths of four of their own. “Turn back around and get away from this, we do have two helicopters down,” said Dan Clark of Channel 5, his voice breaking. “We’re not sure which helicopters they were…”

Pilot Don Hooper of Channel 10, circling around the opposite side of the wreckage field, struggled to breathe as he delivered his commentary to both viewers and Air Traffic Control. “Oh man, oh Jesus… Oh my gosh… Phoenix Tower, SkyFox Ten, we just had a midair collision over here at the park, two helicopters, two helicopters down…oh my god, oh, it’s Channel Three, that’s… Channel Three, and I don’t know who else…possibly Channel Fifteen…”

Hooper would turn out to be right; channels 3 and 15 had in fact been involved in the collision. But back at the Channel 10 studio, that was of little comfort: there was an immediate sense that it could have been any one of them lying dead amid the burning wreckage.

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There was a strange, sad atmosphere in newsrooms across Phoenix that day, a day when, as one reporter quipped, “those of us who report the news, became the news.” Many of those covering the story personally knew the victims — Scott Bowerbank and Jim Cox of Channel 3, and Craig Smith and Rick Krolak of Channel 15. Almost as traumatized were the thousands of ABC 15 viewers who watched the final moments of their station’s helicopter and its doomed occupants on live television, along with hundreds of passersby in downtown Phoenix who saw the collision unfold before their disbelieving eyes. Normally, after such a dramatic accident there would be a groundswell of voices asking, “How could this happen?” But for many witnesses and reporters alike, the problem was self-evident: with so many helicopters operating in close proximity day in and day out, a collision was not only not surprising, but in fact completely foreseeable. And it was obvious that the deaths of four respected reporters would mean nothing unless concrete steps were taken to ensure that such a disaster never happened again.

Identifying the specific failures that led to the collision was the responsibility of the National Transportation Safety Board, which sent a team of investigators to the scene shortly after the accident. Although they did have the recorded broadcasts from both helicopters, as well as ATC communications, reconstructing the moments immediately before the collision was all but impossible because neither helicopter carried a flight data recorder. That made a narrow determination of fault unlikely, and indeed the NTSB declined to come to any conclusions about who hit who first.

That task was left to the lawyers litigating the numerous lawsuits which emerged from the crash. What they eventually produced was the animation included in this article, which shows the Channel 15 helicopter striking the stationary Channel 3 helicopter from the right. Interestingly, this contradicts the NTSB report, which implied that the Channel 15 helicopter was to the left of the Channel 3 helicopter when they collided. However, the docket for the accident provides no specific evidence for this interpretation, and the radar data seemingly supports a broadside impact from the right, as depicted in the court animation. It is more difficult to say whether the Channel 3 helicopter was stationary at the time, but the radar data seems to suggest that it was actually engaged in a right turn, albeit at a much lower speed than the Channel 15 helicopter that subsequently plowed into it.

However, regardless of how exactly the helicopters came together, it made more sense for the NTSB to focus its efforts on the general circumstances that led to the crash. The fundamental problem was that a major news event would invariably attract up to a half a dozen helicopters, all operating under visual flight rules, but without any strictly enforced means of separation. Although it was considered best practice to announce any movements and stick to separate altitudes, an examination of the transcripts from the communications over Phoenix that day showed that the helicopters embarked on many turns, relocations, and altitude changes without any prior announcement. In fact, the last time the Channel 3 and Channel 15 pilots acknowledged each other’s locations was a full four minutes before the collision, after which both helicopters changed their altitude and position multiple times without saying anything.

It was obvious to investigators and the public alike that a major reason for this lack of communication was the distraction imposed by the pilots’ double duty as reporters. From the transcript, it was clear that both pilots spent a substantial percentage of the final four minutes commenting on events on the ground, including during the most critical 30 seconds before the crash. In fact, right at the moment when both pilots should have been trying to avoid the impending collision, the suspect stopped his vehicle and attempted to hijack a truck, a dramatic event which diverted their attention from flying to reporting duties. This distraction not only prevented the pilots from seeing each other, but also made it harder for them to maintain their stated altitudes and trajectories. Shortly before the collision, radar returns showed the Channel 15 helicopter at 2,300 feet and the Channel 3 helicopter at 2,100 feet; after this, the helicopters were too close together to generate a valid radar readout, but it was clear that one or both must have changed altitude in the final moments before they collided, probably by accident, as the pilots were not focused on their instruments.

The expectation that the pilots would provide live commentary necessarily undermined the only principle of separation for traffic operating under Visual Flight Rules: the concept of “see and avoid.” Among light aircraft flying at low altitudes, the pilot is solely responsible for monitoring the locations of nearby aircraft and adjusting their course to avoid them if necessary. This requires constant scanning of the sky outside the aircraft, a responsibility which is incompatible with the obligation to track the police chase and describe it to viewers.

Although “see and avoid” was the operating principle at the time of the accident, the Channel 3 helicopter did have a traffic advisory system which was designed to aid in the identification of traffic threats. The system was not as sophisticated as the Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) installed on larger aircraft, but it would issue a “TRAFFIC, TRAFFIC” aural alert if another aircraft came within 0.2 nautical miles (370 meters). However, in the congested environment around a major news event, this warning would go off frequently, and as such, pilots had developed a habit of turning down the volume on the alert so that it wouldn’t interfere with communications. Although the alert should have gone off in the Channel 3 helicopter shortly before the collision, pilot Scott Bowerbank probably had to the volume too low to hear it over the sound of his own running commentary.

In addition to the problem of conflicting duties, investigators found that news helicopter pilots had to deal with so many lines of communication that it was difficult to see how they could find time to fly safely. Pilots typically had one radio tuned to Phoenix ATC, another tuned to a common frequency shared with other nearby helicopters, a third radio following the police scanner, and a fourth connected to the newsroom, as well as an intercom for communicating with the photographer. Listening to all of these radios was a duty they had to perform on top of reporting, scanning for traffic, and physically operating the helicopter. It was an impossible workload, and one which would have quickly led to burnout were it not for the fact that news helicopter pilots typically flew an average of one hour a day.

Historical records showed that this poorly balanced operating environment had nearly led to tragedy before. Between 1988 and 2007, NASA’s anonymous Aviation Safety Reporting System had logged 18 reports of near-collisions involving news helicopters, amounting to about 25% of all reported news helicopter incidents. In one of these cases, a near midair collision occurred when a pilot covering a police chase got distracted and let their altitude drop until they nearly struck a police helicopter. And in another, a pilot reported having to perform an evasive maneuver after a helicopter that was supposed to be at 1,700 feet nearly crashed into them at 2,000. This pilot used the report to complain about the working conditions, which often involved monitoring up to five radios while also reporting and trying to keep track of as many as 7–10 helicopters concentrated in a stretch of airspace no more than 1,000 feet in height and half a mile wide.

By this point it had become evident that the entire news helicopter industry was a disaster waiting to happen. If anything, it was remarkable that a collision hadn’t happened sooner. The question now was what to do about it.

The first and most obvious change was to permanently separate the duties of pilot and reporter. Following the crash, all Phoenix news stations switched to a two-pilot operation, wherein one pilot would fly the helicopter while the other provided commentary. In 2008, the relevant subcommittee of the Helicopter Association International, an industry group, released an updated guidance manual for news helicopters which instructed pilots to decline any request to provide live narration if this would compromise safety. And the Federal Aviation Administration, in response to an NTSB recommendation, followed suit in 2016, strongly advising operators of news helicopters to separate piloting and reporting duties. Although none of these measures were binding, the crash made the danger so obvious that the practice has largely died out on its own.

In interviews with investigators, local pilots also suggested that steps could be taken to make news helicopters more visible. In the urban and desert environments around Phoenix, it was often difficult to spot other helicopters, especially if they weren’t moving, and pilots admitted to losing sight of one another on a regular basis. After studying the best methods for improving visibility, the NTSB recommended that news helicopters be required to have LED anti-collision lights and blades painted in high-visibility patterns. Although these items are still not required, the latest FAA guidance for news helicopters nevertheless strongly recommends them.

Measures were also taken to try to keep news helicopters farther apart. The same 2008 safety manual from the Helicopter Association for the first time included recommended minimum separation distances of 200 feet vertically and 500 feet laterally, with 400 and 1,000 feet considered ideal, when responding to a news event. In the fifteen years since the crash, this effort has also been aided by advances in camera zoom technology, allowing helicopters to operate farther from the event without compromising the viewing experience.

Finally, in Phoenix, news stations went one step farther by reducing the number of helicopters in the air in the first place: after the crash, channels 3, 5, and 12 agreed to share a single helicopter, with commentary provided separately at each station. Channels 15 and 10, which are now under common ownership, also now share a helicopter. This decision not only made sense from a safety standpoint, but from an economic standpoint as well; after all, one helicopter is much cheaper than three. This consolidation, which was soon repeated in other cities, signaled a shift in the once-popular notion that cable news had to be a competition. At one time, being the first channel to get a helicopter on the scene was considered a necessity, but the crash revealed the needless risk inherent in this approach, reminding TV stations and viewers alike that behind the cameras sit real people whose lives have value, and that if stations fail to work together, the consequences will spare no one.

Today, the legacy of the collision is evident throughout America’s media industry, as changes to the way news stations operate their helicopters have proliferated across the country. Reporting the news from the air is safer than it used to be — and not only because of lessons in helicopter safety, but in law enforcement tactics as well. The golden age of the police pursuit has seemingly ended, with police departments in many states now declining to pursue vehicles unless the driver is suspected of a serious crime. In addition to the deaths of helicopter pilots, chases often result in the deaths of suspects and bystanders alike, by some estimates claiming the lives of 350 to 400 people in the United States each year prior to the reforms. The reduction in pursuits has in turn reduced the need for news helicopters to embark on risky chases in search of a dramatic story. By spending more of their time hovering over stationary news events, pilots take on less risk than they used to, and so does the public at large. And so, as the industry continues to evolve, the once-ubiquitous concept of aerial police chase coverage increasingly feels dated, as do the cheap and dirty TV shows that it used to spawn. The deaths of four reporters on that summer day in Phoenix, Arizona perhaps played a role in this cultural shift — a tragedy that broke through the sensationalism to remind us that there are more important things in life than the voyeuristic pursuit of highway drama. And may it be known that the skies above our heads, the roads we drive on, and the news that we consume are all better off as a result.

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