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Originally published March 18, 2014 at 8:01 PM | Page modified March 18, 2014 at 9:53 PM

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NTSB, FAA focus on helicopter safety

National transportation officials say the overwhelming growth in the use of civilian helicopters, from news choppers to air ambulances, has made industry safety their highest priority.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Helicopter accidents like the one that killed a pilot and news photographer in a fiery crash Tuesday in Seattle prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to declare the “overwhelming growth” in the U.S. civil helicopter industry its highest safety priority earlier this year.

Newsgathering operations, air tours and particularly the use of air ambulances have “led to an unacceptably high number of helicopter crashes” and more than 500 fatalities since 2004, according to the agency’s website.

A veteran news photographer and his pilot, both contracted by KOMO, died Tuesday when their Eurocopter AS350B2 apparently swung around wildly on takeoff from a helipad next to Fisher Plaza, across the street from the Space Needle, and plunged into traffic on Broad Street. At least one driver was seriously burned in the ensuing fire.

It marks the sixth fatal helicopter crash in the past five years in Washington.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month issued what Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called “landmark rules for helicopter safety” requiring helicopter operators — including in news choppers — to improve pilot training, upgrade safety equipment and follow stricter flying procedures in bad weather, among other changes.

“One of the problems with flying news helicopters is that you never really know where the story is going to be,” said Larry Welk, a past president and board member of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association and a 15-year veteran news chopper pilot in Los Angeles.

“You need to be prepared for whatever conditions present themselves,” he said.

Over the years, he said, technology has increased safety for news helicopter pilots and photographers. Lighter equipment and improved video technology mean pilots no longer have to fly as low as before to get the shot.

But they still have to negotiate around buildings and power lines and be aware of the flying competition. And news chopper pilots often have to take off and land on urban helipads, like the one at Fisher Plaza, surrounded by streets, pedestrians and traffic.

There isn’t much room for error, Welk said.

“The worst-case scenario, the nightmare of every pilot, is what do you do if you have a problem someplace like that?” he said. “You are limited in where you can put it down.”

At least 10 fatalities and 21 injuries have been reported across the country from accidents involving news helicopters since 1999, according to a review of NTSB helicopter accident reports.

Tuesday’s crash was the worst news-helicopter accident in Washington since 1985, when a helicopter rotor hit a television tower guy wire on takeoff in Spokane. The pilot and a KREM-TV photographer, on their way to cover the annual Bloomsday race, were killed.

In May 1980, while covering Memorial Day traffic, KIRO’s helicopter and KOMO’s Cessna airplane collided in midair over Bainbridge Island. Both aircraft were damaged but managed to land without anyone being hurt.

In 1999, KIRO’s Chopper 7 collided in midair with another helicopter over Lake Union. Both were able to land safely.

The pilot of the KIRO helicopter was Clark Stahl, who said that urban flying poses particular challenges, especially during takeoffs and landings. The now-retired Stahl said he persuaded KIRO’s management to keep helipad takeoffs and landings to a minimum.

“I basically told them, if something were to go catastrophically wrong on takeoff or landing, there’s virtually no place to go,” he said. “And falling from a four- or five-story rooftop makes the chances of survival pretty slim.”

The NTSB and FAA are most concerned about air ambulances. From 2011 through 2013, 19 people were killed in seven air-ambulance accidents, according to the FAA.

An additional 20 people died in seven accidents involving other commercial helicopters, including those involved in gathering news.

The location of the Fisher Plaza helipad, just a few hundred feet from the Space Needle and Seattle Center, prompted Mayor Ed Murray to call for a review of the city’s helicopter landing sites. There are 12 FAA-registered helipads in the city, the bulk of them clustered around downtown.

“If it had been a busier day, this could have been a much larger tragedy,” Murray said of Tuesday’s crash.

An industry safety expert, Rex Alexander of HeliExperts International, reviewed Fisher Plaza using maps and Google Earth, and said he did not believe it posed any particular hazards. While the Space Needle is close by, he said helipads often have tall buildings in closer proximity.

“I’m not seeing anything that’s jumping out at me that says this is an unsafe or dangerous site,” Alexander said.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or Reporters Michael Baker, Kyung Song, Lynn Thompson, data editor Cheryl Phillips and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.

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