Originally published in Boys’ Life – March 2001
Warren Petrie puts his helicopter in a hover. On the ground 1,000 feet below, flames from a ruptured gas pipeline shoot high into the air. The powerful camera under the helicopter zooms in on firefighters beating back the inferno.
Mr. Petrie moves News Chopper 6 over to photograph the freight train that derailed then cut the nearby gas pipeline, turning night into day with exploding gas. Police are also on the scene, as well as reporters from the local television stations.
But Mr. Petrie has the best view of the accident. So do his colleagues in the television studio and the viewers at home who listen to Mr. Petrie’s report on the accident. Mr. Petrie is a TV journalist. He catches the news on tape while flying a million-dollar chopper for KOIN-6 News in Portland, Ore.
Close to the news…
Air-borne news-gathering is a spilt-second decision job. Mr. Petrie regularly flies into tight spots to get the story.
“The helicopter is a magic carpet,” he says. “It’s exhilarating to be able to maneuver close to where the action is.” That’s exactly why television stations rely on helicopters to get close to the news.
Mr. Petrie covers everything an earthbound TV crew can’t get to boating accidents, forest fires or car chases on the freeway. He is never off work. News-gathering is a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week job. “I wear a pager and carry a cell phone, waiting for the producer to call with breaking stories,” he says.
…But not too close
His job is like walking a tight rope. The producer wants the pilot to cover the news close up, while law enforcement usually wants him out of the way.
Sometimes the police declare a “no-fly zone,” concerned that the chopper will interfere with their job. “They may need quiet conditions to track down a suspect hiding in the bushes,” Mr. Petrie says. “Or the fugitive may have access to a TV and can see what the police are doing outside.”
Other times, the situation is opposite: Search and rescue teams want the pilot’s help. “We try to give back to the community by giving public assistance,” Mr. Petrie says. That sometimes turns the TV reporter into a hero.
To the rescue
It’s May 1999. Mr. Petrie gets an urgent call on his cell phone: A hiker has been lost in the wilderness around Eagle Creek for three days. Can he help?
Recalls Mr. Petrie: “When we arrived I had a strong feeling about where [the hiker] was, but I could not get to the area because of low clouds.”
After several tries Mr. Petrie had to give up, but he tried again the following day. Strong winds almost put a stop to the rescue effort, but Mr. Pertie finally managed to get the chopper into the area.
“Suddenly my photographer said he saw a flash [from the ground],” Mr. Petrie says. They flew over the area and spotted a hiker waving pots and pans, trying to attract attention. Mr. Petrie transmitted live pictures to the station’s satellite truck at base camp. The missing hiker’s mother identified him as her son. Mr. Petrie relayed the hiker’s position to a National Guard helicopter, which made the pick-up.
“It was a god day,” says Mr. Petrie.
Stressful but rewarding
Mr. Petrie admits he has a stressful job. Flying a helicopter has been compared to standing on a basketball with one leg and with eyes closed.
“You have to fly the helicopter every second,” he says. “Left to its own, the chopper will go out of control in an instant.”
Yet, it is not enough to just fly. Mr. Petrie has to keep and eye on what it is happening on the ground, stay in contact with air traffic controllers, talk to his producer, find the best camera angles and beam the news back to the station.
“At the end of a long news day, I am physically tired,” he says. At the same time, Mr. Petrie says it is a rewarding job. “It’s fun being able to se the things that I see.”
Making the news Sometimes a newsman becomes the news himself, like the time news chopper pilot Warren Petrie had a run-in with a duck at 2,000 feet.
“There was a loud explosion in the cockpit,” Mr. Petrie says, “and suddenly all the warning lights lit up.”
The front of the windshield broke, sending shards through he cockpit, hitting Mr. Petrie’s photographer.
Mr. Petrie brought the damaged helicopter in for an emergency landing at a nearby airport. Incredibly, both he and his photographer came away from the accident with frazzled nerves, but no injuries.
Yes, Mr. Petrie and his damaged helicopter made the evening news.
Million dollar workplace
Fully equipped, Warren Petrie’s Bell Jet Ranger 3 costs about $1 million. The KOIN 6 News Chopper carries a nose-mounted, broadcast-quality camera. An internal gyroscope stabilizes the camera.
Mr. Petrie also has a camera inside the cockpit to give the viewers a “pilot’s view.” A tail camera photographs the helicopter as it flies. A microwave transmitter mounted on the helo’s belly beams live pictures to the TV station in downtown Portland.
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