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Sunday, July 25, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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On The Air In The Air

Seattle Times Aerospace Reporter

Aerial journalism is so important to TV news, the helicopters are promoted like personalities. When a whale is hunted, the waters rise or a bus plunges off a bridge, there's no better way to see what happened.

There is competitive pressure in that airspace. When a big story breaks, the day can be long.

With no regulations limiting their flying time, the pilots decide when enough is enough. On May 28, after 7 1/2 hours in the air covering a shooting rampage in Shoreline, KOMO-TV pilot Roger Fox declined to fly any longer and had words with a supervisor.

Fox no longer works at KOMO, and the circumstances of his departure are matters of debate.

But the incident brought a number of questions to the forefront: Who are these flyboys, and what guides their conduct in the air? Seattle Times aerospace reporter Chuck Taylor spent a day in the skies with KIRO-TV's Chopper 7 crew to learn what they do, and what it takes to bring home those spectacular pictures. -------------------------------

It's been an unusually slow news day.

Clark Stahl and Bill Heinlein are sprawled on plush chairs in the sunny lobby of Classic Helicopter Corp. at Boeing Field. The five o'clock news on KIRO-TV is almost over, and the Chopper 7 crew hasn't had to move.

Heinlein has cracked a paperback. Stahl is reading a magazine.

Then the cell phone pierces the jet noise from outside. It's the assignment desk. Some sort of police tactical response is under way in West Seattle. Don't have an address yet.

Stahl, the reporter-pilot who narrates nearly all of KIRO's aerial journalism, and Heinlein, the photographer who operates the gyro-mounted camera that hangs from Chopper 7's Plexiglas nose, walk swiftly out to the ramp. It's 5:53 p.m.

They fire up their 1980 Bell Jet Ranger III and call Boeing Tower for takeoff clearance.

"Chopper 7, roger, cleared for takeoff," the tower controller says. "Traffic (to watch for) is a TV helicopter in orbit over Duwamish Head."

Curses! KING-TV's SkyKing, piloted by Tom Murphy, already is circling the scene and probably is feeding pictures to viewers.

Chopper 7 floats across the Boeing Field grass and climbs into the urban sky in pursuit. It's probably too late for the five o'clock newscast, so whatever they get will be for 6:30.

At least Air 4, KOMO-TV's helicopter, is out of action - in the shop for maintenance and, for now, without a full-time pilot after the recent departure of Roger Fox. This particular aerial battle will be a duel between Stahl and Murphy.

But battle is too strong a word. Typically, they coordinate by radio their circuit of a scene. First guy there gets choice of altitude and orbit. The next flies 200 feet higher and at the opposite side of the circle. And so on, if other media aircraft converge.

Seattle's TV chopper pilots and radio traffic spotters also share information - up to a point. Stahl radios SkyKing, inquiring about the location of the West Seattle standoff. Murphy says it's near the big water tower.

Chopper 7 heads northwest from Boeing Field. The assignment desk has some details. A man has fired a gun and is holding himself hostage in a garage. It's a dime-a-dozen incident, but police have sealed the neighborhood and the potential is there for it to become something bigger.

Stahl is in the right seat, hand on the joystick, feet on the pedals, two boom microphones sweeping across his cheek from substantial headphones.

Heinlein is in the back seat, with a keyboard-like console on his lap and several TV monitors in front of him. He uses a joystick to direct the camera, which has an incredibly powerful zoom lens and miraculously steady aim. The steadycam, as it is called, has a gyroscope for a tripod.

"For 15 years or better, I was shooting hand-held out the window," with a regular shoulder-mounted video camera, Heinlein says, "and I was thinking I was pretty good at keeping images steady. Until we got this thing."

Atop Stahl's cockpit panel is a miniature television monitor, where he can see what the camera sees, or what KIRO is broadcasting. There's also a small camera there, pointed at him for the shot that establishes Stahl as KIRO's guy in the sky.

"The way we work," says KIRO news director Bill Lord, "Clark is a reporter." The other two stations with choppers carry a reporter along for commentary, if need be.

A wall of noise

Chopper 7 flies over the Duwamish Waterway. In their headphones, Stahl and Heinlein are listening to a wall of noise: clipped commands on two air-traffic-control frequencies, chatter on several police scanners, occasional conversations on the two-way radio channel used by the assignment desk to talk to reporters in the field.

After hundreds of hours of doing this, the Chopper 7 crew is keen at ignoring the irrelevant radio jabber and picking up the pertinent info emerging from the din, such as a call from air-traffic controllers.

Or a fragment of something interesting announced by a police dispatcher, whose voice rises ever so slightly above the normal calm: ". . . two vehicles racing northbound through the Battery Street Tunnel at 80 to 90 mph . . ."

"Did you hear that?" Heinlein says.

"Yeah," Stahl replies.

There is hesitation while they ponder the obvious question: Could this be better than some guy holding himself hostage? They'd have a head start getting there.

Just a few months earlier, Stahl and Heinlein had captured on video a dramatic car chase through downtown Seattle, during which shots were fired before the suspect was apprehended.

"Let's check it out," Stahl says.

Chopper 7 turns northbound over Elliott Bay, away from West Seattle and SkyKing. Heinlein looks back to see if Murphy, too, heard about the cars racing up Aurora Avenue North, and whether he is headed their way.

SkyKing is staying put, hovering over Duwamish Head.

"Where you going, Clark?" Murphy asks over the radio.

Stahl reports his position vaguely: "Northbound, Queen Anne."

"You got something better?"

"Naw," Stahl says, "we're going to check out Green Lake." The cordial television air war is a safe one, thanks to this sort of banter, but sometimes it means not being entirely frank with the competition.

"That was lame," Heinlein cracks over the intercom.

"Well, it may be true," Stahl says of their pursuit for uncertain news.

Heinlein has trained the camera on Aurora Avenue, scanning the traffic stretching north from downtown. From over Queen Anne, intersections five miles away fill the screen. No sign of racing cars.

Chopper 7 breaks off the pursuit over Fremont and makes a 180-degree turn over Ballard and Interbay to return to the standoff in West Seattle. Stahl activates the helicopter's microwave beam, which will send live pictures to a receiving dish on Gold Mountain, 15 miles away in Kitsap County. From there, the video feed is relayed back to KIRO's Seattle studios.

By the time Stahl and Heinlein arrive to orbit the scene in West Seattle, it's 6:10 and SkyKing is gone. KING now is broadcasting an NBA championship game and won't be needing anything for a 6:30 newscast. The job will be easier with no one else circling.

Chasing the action

It takes a couple of minutes to figure out where the action is. Seemingly tiny, light-blue Seattle Police cars are lined up on one street. The mobile command post is parked near one intersection. Several blocks of West Seattle have been cordoned off. But where is the suspect with the gun hiding out?

Then Heinlein spots the armored personnel carrier the SWAT teams uses. With the naked eye from 1,400 feet up, it looks like a little black box. But on Heinlein's TV monitor, it fills the screen.

Their timing couldn't be better. The APC, as it's called, is on the move, and a cop in plain clothes is running up a driveway to a side garage, apparently where the guy with the gun is holed up.

Looking out the window, the garage is barely discernible from the house, and it's hard to stay focused on it as Stahl slowly flies back and forth about a mile west of the scene. But Heinlein has the steadycam aimed so that the garage fills the entire TV screen. "I can see him in the doorway," he says. The man and the cop apparently are talking.

Over the air, KIRO is broadcasting "The CBS Evening News," but producers have been recording the pictures Chopper 7 has been feeding, for use later.

"Chopper 7, Boeing Tower," the radio suddenly crackles.

"Chopper 7," Stahl replies.

"Chopper 7, Seattle Police request that you remain clear of the scene."

"Chopper 7, roger." Stahl backs off a few miles to a position off Alki Beach. Heinlein still is able to keep the garage in full view, but the angle isn't as good. Buildings in the foreground are partly blocking it.

Such requests are the bane of TV chopper pilots. Authorities on the ground say distracting noise or the fact suspects might monitor police movements are among the reasons for waving off the aerial photographers.

Stahl doesn't want to make a situation worse, but he's convinced that sometimes authorities close airspace simply to keep the media from scrutinizing their work.

In this case the request seems reasonable, and now that the desk has recorded tape of the garage up-close, it doesn't matter much.

It's 6:22 now. Stahl tunes the cockpit TV to KIRO's broadcast of the CBS news, and that audio joins the other cacophony in the headphones.

The man in question is thought to be suicidal. With tape, you have editorial control. With a live shot, you don't. "Chopper 7," the assignment editor radios, "for the 6:30, we want a wide shot - really wide, so this guy doesn't spill his brains on our television."

In reply, Stahl and Heinlein jokingly feign surprise at the policy. The danger of broadcasting a volatile situation live is probably the most talked-about issue in helicopter reporting. But the order must be given, so there's no question about who was told what. Heinlein zooms back. The shot now is so wide as to be worthless, showing practically all of West Seattle.

It's almost 6:30 and Dan Rather is introducing his last story. Stahl is briefed by the assignment desk. They agree that he'll do a brief live report, talking over the previously shot video of the armored vehicle and the garage.

In Stahl's headphones, the stream of noise continues - the police scanners, the air-traffic control exchanges, the closing theme music of "The CBS Evening News."

All this time he has been slowly flying back and forth, a light touch on the stick, never deviating from 1,400 feet. Moments before his cue to talk, Boeing Tower calls to point out an airplane nearby, banking over Elliott Bay for final approach into the airport. Stahl glances left, sees the plane. "Chopper 7, traffic in sight," he replies.

The KIRO news theme music kicks in. Steve Raible and Susan Hutchison begin reading the headlines. In a moment, their top story. But first, breaking news. Clark Stahl is live in Chopper 7 over West Seattle . . .

Chuck Taylor's phone-message number is 206-464-2465. His e-mail address is: chucktaylor@seattletimes.com.

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

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