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Monday, June 14, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Komo-TV Is Looking For A New Helicopter Pilot

Seattle Times Television Critic

The relationship between KOMO-TV and station helicopter pilot Roger Fox has apparently reached the end of the runway.

Last Friday, KOMO issued an ultimatum to Fox: Agree to our conditions for reinstatement if you want to fly again. Fox did not respond, the deadline has passed, and he is out of a job.

"I have not heard from him," said News Director Joe Barnes. "We have been approached by other pilots interested in flying Chopper 4 and we will be pursuing that."

Barnes, Fox and Assistant News Director Graham Robertson have been the principal players in a stormy two-week drama at the station. The unwelcome attention, which has caught the interest of Seattle's aviation as well as news communities, comes on the heels of a tight ratings race between KOMO and longtime rival KING-TV.

The dispute originated on May 28, the day of the Shoreline rampage. It touches on issues of pilot fatigue, of public safety and - according to KOMO managers - of rank insubordination during a critical news story.

The day of the Shoreline case, Fox spent 7 1/2 hours in the air shooting footage, including a couple of refueling stops. After landing KOMO's helicopter at Boeing Field, he received a call from Robertson asking him to go up again.

Fox said he was tired and refused. Somehow, the conversation escalated into an argument in which Fox insulted Robertson, then Barnes. At its conclusion, Fox concluded he had been fired.

During the ensuing week, Fox's status appeared nebulous. Station insiders said his firing was confirmed by KOMO General Manager Dick Warsinske to employees and that was why some signed the petition for reinstatement.

However, in an interview last Thursday, Warsinske said Fox was still employed, but "(We) need to hear from him to straighten out certain issues for that to continue."

The conditions, outlined in the ultimatum and sent by courier to Fox last Friday, included apologies to Barnes and Robertson and a request that Fox set up a more effective communications system between himself and management.

But the most critical stipulation - one which Fox has resisted - was an agreement that he had failed to make it clear on May 28 that his fatigue constituted a safety issue.

The issue of flying safety is a crucial one for TV stations, particularly because news helicopters have garnered negative publicity during the past several years. Police have accused helicopters of interfering with operations and, in more extreme instances, the public has recoiled from inappropriate footage gathered by helicopters. The most controversial example involved a Los Angeles station whose helicopter shot live video of a man committing suicide.

By and large, though, Seattle stations and police have had a decent relationship. Ironically, the day of the Shoreline coverage, law enforcement on the scene requested Fox and KOMO to shoot some close footage to help the police effort.

Now, Fox's flying days with KOMO are through.

Fox could not be reached for comment this morning. The attorney whom he consulted last Thursday, Robert Van Siclen, did not return calls. Van Siclen has handled aviation cases, although he is best known for successfully representing defendants in the Wenatchee sex-ring trial several years ago.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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