To be first on the scene to cover breaking news stories in Los Angeles, you need a helicopter. With vehicle traffic at near gridlock from early morning until late in the evening, it can be more than a little difficult to get to a story quickly with ground-based news crews.
Helicopters have been used to cover news in Los Angeles since the ’60s, growing in popularity in the ’70s and ’80s. By the ’90s, helicopters were operated by every station, but the method of capturing the images had remained relatively unchanged. Camera operators were still hanging out of open rear doors shouldering unstabilized cameras.
This all changed in the early 2000s when externally mounted stabilized camera systems were installed onto news helicopters. This revolutionized the electronic news gathering (ENG) industry, providing images of a previously unimaginable quality. Decades later, the next groundbreaking leap in aerial camera technology has arrived, in the shape of the Shotover F1 Live camera system operated by Helinet Aviation, for ABC7, the most-watched TV station in Southern California.
“By utilizing the Shotover F1 Live as the centerpiece of the Air 7 HD news helicopter, we are providing unparalleled viewpoints into breaking news events,” said Rob Elmore, KABC Eyewitness News VP and news director.
The Shotover system is mounted on an Airbus AS350 B2 AStar, known as Air 7 HD. The news ship, owned and operated by Helinet, is available for the station 24 hours a day, seven days a week. During peak news hours (10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.), the station also operates a second AStar. ABC7 operated a Bell 206 LongRanger for many years but transitioned to the AStar in the early ’90s. This type of aircraft has proved a popular choice for ENG operators because of its speed, power, and ability to carry the added weight needed for advanced news equipment. Its cabin size also allows a rear-seated operator to have the room needed to operate the installed news gathering mission equipment required for the task.
“The AS350 series helicopters have the power to work in the mountains and the reliability to fly multiple hours, day after day,” Helinet chief pilot Garett Dalton told Vertical.
ABC7 is no stranger to breaking new ground with its coverage, as it was the first television station in Southern California to broadcast news in high definition. It has continued this tradition with the new F1 Live camera system on Air 7 HD.
The Shotover F1 Live can accommodate the most advanced broadcast cameras on the market, including both 2K and 4K models. The system’s six-axis stabilization technology provides a unique feature, the ability to look 90 degrees straight down, underneath the helicopter, giving the operator unprecedented flexibility in providing camera angles into extremely tight areas on the ground. In addition, the camera system has an open platform design, making it upgradeable as more advanced camera and lens become available.
The F1 Live camera system is equipped with what ABC7 proudly calls “Xtreme Vision.” This solution provides an industry-first, 6,500-millimeter zoom focal length, which is over eight times more powerful than those typically used in competing ENG helicopters. And most importantly, the Shotover is able to stabilize the image at that unprecedented zoom range. To further enhance the camera system’s capability, ABC7 utilizes Churchill Navigation’s state-of-the-art augmented reality mapping system, dubbed “SkyMap7.” This allows on-air reporters and operators to immediately locate, identify, and navigate to assignments.
“The system’s flexibility brings a new level of accessibility to news coverage, allowing us to capture the latest breaking news like never before, said Helinet VP of Technology and Air 7 HD reporter, J.T. Alpaugh. “Using these advanced technologies, we can even track the speed of a suspect’s vehicle during a pursuit, and locate streets or homes with augmented reality satellite imagery, even if they are obscured by smoke during a wildfire, or buried by a mudslide.”
Flying a Typical Beat Mission
There are two ways in which the crew in the ABC7 helicopter find themselves covering a story, either through assignment from the station’s news desk, or by observing newsworthy events while in flight. The crew also monitors the on-board radio scanners for in progress police pursuits, structure fires, or notable law enforcement operations. When found, they advise the station.
A typical weekday starts at 4 a.m. for the morning Air 7 HD crew until they are relieved at 2 p.m. by the crew that staffs until midnight. The aircraft are based at Helinet’s headquarters at Van Nuys Airport in the San Fernando Valley, and when the call comes in from the assignment desk, the crew launches immediately. The aircraft routinely travel all over the Greater Los Angeles area, but most stories are within the L.A. Basin and east to San Bernardino. Crews can travel as far south as San Diego, east to Palm Springs, west to Santa Barbara and north to Bakersfield, and at times have even flown as far as the borders of Arizona and Mexico.
The helicopter can also be sent to the local mountains, and this can be challenging. Big Bear in the San Bernardino mountains, which have peaks of over 8,000 feet (2,440 meters), is a regular destination, so with safety paramount operating the AS350 is an advantage due to its performance at high altitude. Typical stories in the mountains are wildfires, cars off the side of the road, and motorcycle accidents, while searches for hikers, hunters, or skiers are also covered.
Once on-scene, the helicopter’s camera operator works closely with the pilot and the on-air reporter. They need to understand and be able to operate the aircraft’s ENG equipment almost instinctively, all while using radios, microwave transmission equipment, and maintaining constant contact with the assignment desk. It is a challenging job, suited only for those who are well trained to multi-task and stay focused for hours at a time.
With numerous class B, C, and D airports in and around the Los Angeles Basin, a temporary flight restriction (TFR) circling Disneyland, and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton to the south, Helinet’s pilots need and have a clear understanding of airspace concerns and how to navigate through and around them. Regular TFRs routinely pop up at Dodger Stadium, the L.A. Coliseum, the Rose Bowl, and at Angel Stadium, which can add to the challenge.
“L.A. is one of the most complex airspaces to fly in the country,” said Dalton. “Transiting the airspace can be intimidating to even the most qualified pilot.” Because of this, Dalton said Helinet hires ENG pilots who are already familiar and comfortable flying in the airspace.
In addition, crew safety and training are embedded in Helinet’s culture. To maintain Helinet pilot proficiency, all pilots complete the company’s requisite annual training curriculum, which involves both ground and extensive flight training with EuroSafety International.
Covering Emergency Operations
The ENG helicopter operators within L.A. are a tight-knit group of pilots, camera operators, and reporters and it needs to be this way, as the aircraft work in close proximity to each other while covering news events. With the experience of several decades of working in such a busy environment, ENG aircrews follow established procedures while gathering news images. Communication is key, and pilots consistently advise each other of their movements and intentions anytime the aircraft are in the same general area.
Similarly, the ENG community maintains a close relationship with local law enforcement and fire aircrews, and there is a shared understanding of the procedures to be followed during pursuits, barricaded suspects, and wildfire operations. ENG helicopters maintain predetermined and prescribed separation from law enforcement and fire helicopters. They also use extreme caution not to televise live the tactical movements of law enforcement on the ground, which could compromise an operation if a barricaded suspect has the ability to watch live TV broadcasts.
The Air 7 HD aircraft also plays an important public safety role during wildfire season, and especially now with its new ability to accurately map a fire’s location, direction, and size, while providing on-air mapping overlays showing streets and homes that are directly threatened. Working news over a wildfire can be challenging, as the aircrew must make regular radio contact with fire air attack to coordinate where and at what altitude they can operate. Air attack in return is able to provide valuable information on the kind of aviation and ground assets being used to fight the fire.
All ENG helicopters operate high above the firefighting aircraft, allowing the latter to concentrate solely on containing the fire. Depending on the location of the fire, and the types of firefighting aircraft being used, the ENG helicopters might find themselves operating at well over 10,000 feet, which makes the Shotover camera system’s extremely long zoom capability even more important. Aircraft performance is also a key factor at these altitudes, and is yet another reason the AS350 is the preferred choice.
“Helinet has worked with ABC7 for more than 20 years and our team has an excellent understanding of the station’s needs,” Helinet CEO Kathryn Purwin told Vertical. “KABC has always been on the cutting edge of aerial broadcast technology and Helinet works closely with them to incorporate this technology into their daily broadcasts.”