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A Loss in the Family

by Jack Penning

Posted on July 27, 2007 at 4:28 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:45 PM

We, at KGW, lost four colleagues in today's tragic news helicopter collision in Phoenix. The accident hits even closer to home for us because one of the helicopters involved belongs to our sister station KTVK-TV. KGW and KTVK are both owned by Belo, and the two men lost, Pilot Scott Bowerbank and Photographer Jim Cox, were our Belo co-workers.

People who work together in newsrooms are incredibly close. We keep crazy hours, covering crazy stories, causing us to develop deep bonds of friendship. We become newsroom families.

I can't imagine what it's like to lose a member of that family. But all of us at KGW can empathize with the grief that's overtaken the KTVK newsroom, the City of Phoenix, and the State of Arizona. We feel like we've lost two members of our own extended family.

What makes the loss all the more difficult is the fact that Scott and Jim were just doing their job. They'd spent countless hours in the helicopter, covering stories just like today's chase. Never would anyone imagine an event on the ground, could lead to such tragedy in the air. Never would Scott and Jim imagine that this would be their final assignment.

As KGW's aviation reporter, I've spent hundreds of hours in our helicopter, Sky 8. I don't fly it, I'm just along for the ride, with our outstanding pilot team of Daron Larsen and Earl Longden. But I've seen, first hand, just how tricky it can be to fly a news chopper, and still deal with all the other things going on around us in the sky. In Portland, as in Phoenix, there's a tremendous number of other aircraft in the air - other news choppers, private planes, and commercial flights. We are constantly bombarded by warnings from air traffic control: "TV 8, traffic 3 o-clock, 1 mile, 2,000 feet, southbound Cessna, report them in sight." We squint into the sun, searching for the plane, hoping to catch it before it's too close for us to get out of the way.

You'd be amazed at how difficult it is to spot another plane in the sky, even when it's right on top of you. Add to that the stress of trying to position a helicopter perfectly above a breaking news event, to get the best shot, and the chore of tending to the radios to keep both the station, and air traffic control, appraised of where you are.

I can't say I've ever had a "close call" in Sky 8. At least not what our pilots would call a "close call." There have been times when planes have been so close I could see the whites of the pilot's eyes - but we were never in danger of colliding. Still, I can see how easy it would be for a pair of choppers to run into each other, and how the pilots would never see it coming.

The sky seems like such a vast place. You'd think there would be plenty of room for all the choppers, and all the Cessna's, and all the Boeings. And there is - except over a big city - where all those pilots are carefully guiding their aircraft in a well-choreographed aerial ballet. All it takes is a split second - a slight deviation - and the dancers tumble.

We send out our deepest, most heart-felt condolences to our friends in Phoenix. We mourn with you, and honor your courage in reporting on today's loss in your own family. Your resolve in the most difficult of times is an inspiration to journalists everywhere - and especially at your sister station in Portland.