Four days after the Phoenix chopper crash, the debate over helicopter newsgathering continues - at the hangar, in the newsroom and on the internet. The questions are many: Should TV news chopper pilots stop doubling as on-air personalities? Should stations share aerial footage gathered by a single aircraft? Should the Federal Government step in and limit where the Fourth Estate can fly? Should industry leaders call for the abatement of high-speed pursuits? Dunno. All I am sure of is there’s no chopper pad behind El Ocho. Thank God. Don't get me wrong, there was a day I’d crawl in any cockpit and I’ll still strap in if the reason is right, but a weekly seat aboard one of those eggbeaters is, quite simply, duty I can do without. If that makes me a coward, then it is one of convenience - for if my station did have a logo'd bird parked out back - I'd be drawn to its insides like an addict to crack. Why exactly, I can't say - but as always, I'll give it a shot anyway.
I've said before on this very blog that a fancy-cam will get you into most any cockpit. When I was younger, I tested that theory relentlessly, worming my way aboard any airship that would have me and my lens: countless tiny Cessnas, an attack helicopter, a few hot air balloons, even the Goodyear Blimp. Hell, I came thisclose to scoring a ride with the Blue Angels once, but the reporter chosen to go in my place had much prettier boobs. That really burned me up at the time, schlepping along terra firma as she got to pull a couple of big-busted G's. But I got over it. How? By telling myself it simply wasn't meant to be. That kind of fatalism may sound strange coming from a card-carrying cynic like myself, but when it comes to assignment selection, one tends to believe in a kind of serendipity; a quiet belief that certain gigs come your way for the very reason others don't. How else do you explain the unnerving randomness of it all?
Of course, there's another factor at play. Call it Cameraman Immortality. I cannot fully explain its origins, but its the insidious opinion that society's norms don't apply to you - just because you happen to take in life through a tube. As a condition, it occurs in varying degrees. Most active in the machismo of our twenties, its a common misconception borne of most uncommon access. I use to have it bad. Cop cars, single bars, forest fars ... I ran headlong into each, simultaneously brandishing my camera and hiding behind its heft. See, as long as I'm rolling, nothing can hurt me. I'll simply stare at that tiny black and white screen until the improbable images flicker to darkness and reality slowly returns. Only then will I repair to the edit suite and review my footage, chuckling darkly at how close my camera and I came to the brink.
If that all seems a little overblown, well - you should be used to that by now. What I'm trying to say in my own hyperbolic way is that its easy to feel bulletproof when you're merely there to document. How many times can the average photog brush against calamity and come away unscathed, before he or she decides the laws of nature simply don't apply when the tally light is shining? I don't know, neither do I claim to know what ran through the minds of the Phoenix Four as they began what probably felt like just another routine flight. Chances are thoughts of a violent death weren't aboard either news chopper last Friday, as the men inside were too busy doing a job they enjoyed to mull over each other's mortal coil. That, I've learned is how life and death operate - with little foreshadowing and even less logic. Must be why the older I get, the less I realize I know.
So while a globe full of pundits decry the wisodm and hubris of aerial brinkmanship, I'll save my gray matter for the lowly photog's point of view. Unlike their pilot counterparts, the two young men hunched over camera knobs last Friday controlled only their viewers-at-large imagination. When the terrible collision occured and altitude was lost, their skills ceased to matter and their bodies ceased to be. This makes them no less than heroes in my book, for, unlike the myriad of managers that hurled them into the void, the legion of watchers egging it all on from the safety of their sofas, or the felonious schlub at the very front of the pack, photojournalists Jim Cox and Rick Krolak are devoid of fault and unworthy of your malice - for they performed a task they loved until the very act took their own lives. We should all fly so high...