Thursday, August 5, 2010

"We're not finished crashing yet..."

Before things became hellish between the union and the company, KGTV was a great place to work. I started there in 2000 as a part-time employee and eventually landed myself a full-time job. In operations and Engineering we were represented by a union, and the contract that I was hired under was pretty good for the employee. We were given ample vacation and comp days, great overtime compensation, and even extra money for hazardous work, like flying in the helicopter.

I started going up in SKY10 in 2004. I had the unique position of working hours that fell between the two standard shifts. Often times I would one of the only people around during the day. So when something "big" was happening, I would often get called to run out to the helicopter pad and chase the story. My job was to operate the nose mounted camera, as well as mix the audio, and operate the microwave transmission equipment. It was a fun gig. I never had a problem dropping everything I was doing so that I could go fly.

It was just another day, and just another "breaking news" situation. I got the call and ran out to the pad where the pilot already had the engine going and the blades spinning. Also already on board was one of the fairly new female reporters. I don't even remember what the story was... probably another freeway chase or perhaps a brush fire flaring up somewhere. I hopped in the back, got my seat belt on, put on my headset and we lifted off.

The Station is located just off the 94 freeway east of downtown San Diego, and almost directly underneath the final approach to Lindbergh Field. It is well within the "Class B" controlled airspace, and as such, our departures and arrivals at the station are managed by the tower at the airport. However, often times it was difficult to get a transmission to the Lindbergh Tower from the ground at the station because of the close proximity to the building between us and the airport. It was common practice to lift off and hover in an air taxi and then request and await clearance from the tower. On nearly every occasion the communication between us and the tower would go something like this:

SKY10: "Lindbergh Tower, SKY10"
Lindbergh Tower: "Go ahead Sky 10."
SKY10: "We are just lifting off from the station, and would like to depart to the north along the 805"
LT: "SKY10, Inbound aircraft is a 737 at 5 miles. Report contact."
SKY10: "Yes I see the 737."
LT: "Maintain visual separation with that aircraft. Clear to depart the Class Bravo airspace to the north. Climb to 1000 ft and maintain heading 030. Good day."
SKY10: "SKY10"

There were always some variations, like maybe a different aircraft on approach, or we would be heading a different direction, but that's how it went 9 times out of 10. This day would be a bit different. As we lifted off the conversation started as normal, but this time the information given from the tower included this:

"SKY 10, aircraft just passing overhead is a Boeing 767. Caution: Wake turbulance..."

The next thing I knew I was almost falling out of the door. The camera control unit had fallen from my lap and hit the ceiling. This was due to the fact that the helicopter had spun nearly upside down. I had no time to comprehend what the hell was happening, but I could hear the reporter making a weird gutteral sound in the headset. She had dropped her leather-bound notepad and it had fallen into the backseat and was slapping me in the face as it got tossed around the cabin. I heard the engine whining at full throttle and the entire helicopter was rattling and shaking as the pilot attempted keep us righted and in the air. I didn't even have time to think about dying, I was too busy trying to figure out which way was up.

"SKY10 report your position!" said the ATC at Lindbergh.
Pilot: (as calm as a hindu cow) "I'll let you know in a second, we haven't finished crashing yet."

The reporter screamed. I heard the sound of car alarms going off. The helicopter stopped buffeting. I straightened up and looked out the window. We were hovering about 15 feet off the ground and directly above the parking lot of the TV station. There was a green Porsche close enough to spit on. We were at nearly 1000 ft a few seconds before this. The pilot slowly and gingerly guided the aircraft sideways and back over to the pad and set us down. He killed the engine immediately.

The reporter was hysterical. She was flailing about in an attempt to get her seat-belts off. The pilot tried to help her but she kind of slapped at his hands. She eventually freed herself, and bolted towards the building. She would admit to me later that she had peed herself.

"Holy shit, what happened?" I asked.
"We got caught in his wake . There was no way to know until we're already in it."
"Holy shit..." was all I could manage to say. Just then the assignment desk editor at the station hopped on the radio.

"SKY10 what's your ETA to the scene? We want to do a live cut-in"

He just reached up and turned off the radio. I called her on my phone a moment later to tell her there would be no live cut-in happening until we all got a change of underwear. I would later find out that we flew directly through one of the wingtip vortices of the 767. Its basically a swirling tunnels of air that is created as the wing creates lift. It had nearly flipped us completely upside down. Once a helicopter like that gets upside down its not a good thing. The pilot would also later tell me that had we been about 100 feet lower we would have crashed for sure.

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