Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn will visit hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and write about them.
Philadelphia becomes a lot smaller when you’re flying in a helicopter at 125 mph, 1,000 feet in the air. You see the Comcast tower on face-to-face level and look down on the Billy Penn statue. The Benajmin Franklin Bridge starts looks like an item in a toy set.
Phil Norton, Frank Cochrane, Daniel Kent and Jeremy Haas see Philadelphia like this every day. Norton and Cochrane are pilots for the NBC 10’s SkyForce 10 helicopter. Haas and Kent are cameramen, recording what we see from above on the news every day, like fires, major car accidents, police chases and the recent Amtrak 188 crash.
Sometimes the stories are routine. Other times they never know what they’ll see. About ten years ago, Haas recalls going up in the helicopter to record a police chase in either the River Wards or Northeast Philly. The guy was fast. He got out of the car and started hurdling fences, easily outrunning the police. At the time, NBC’s helicopter didn’t have its signature, colorful paint job and had a base color of black with a few numbers painted on.
“It looked like a cop chopper,” Haas says.
Apparently the guy thought so too. Though no police officers were anywhere near him, he stopped running in the middle of a field, stared toward SkyForce 10, threw his hands in the air in exasperation and gave up.
“So he got caught because of us,” Haas says.
NBC has been using the Sky Force 10 helicopter since 2013, after sharing a helicopter with Fox for a few years. SkyForce 10 is a Bell 206 Long Ranger. It can reach speeds of 130 mph. The ideal height for hovering above a news story is 1,000 feet but sometimes Norton will pull up to 1,500 or 2,000 feet depending on requests from police or other public authorities on the ground.
The helicopter could fit seven people, but with equipment only five can comfortably squeeze in. Usually, it’s just the pilot and the cameraman in the air. Sometimes a reporter will join and in rare cases an anchor. New NBC Nightly News host Lester Holt did a full newscast from aboard SkyForce 10 while reporting on the Amtrak crash.
NBC used to have its helicopter film traffic every morning and evening, along with breaking news stories. In these more cash-conscious media times, the chopper goes up just for the news, and it usually goes up about two times a day. With fuel costs, maintenance and contracting the pilots, NBC is probably paying around $200 per hour, based on industry estimates.
But that won’t stop the news bird from taking to the sky.
“In Philadelphia,” Norton says, “you’ll always have a big story.”
Some of the biggest ones Norton has been to in recent years include the Market Street collapse of 2013, Mo’ne Davis’ dominance of the Little League World Series, the Eric Frein manhunt in the Poconos and the Amtrak crash this year.
NBC arrived first to the Amtrak scene, a major victory for the network. Three of the four networks have helicopters in Philly. They’re usually headed for the same stories and sometimes the skies get crowded. Pilots for the different TV stations communicate with each other and stagger heights so each can safely fly and record the scene.
When I spent the afternoon with Haas and Norton, we traveled to a crime scene at a Wilmington gas station. It didn’t carry the same excitement as a police chase or a major news story, but offered great views and brought us close to Joe Biden’ house. In the cockpit of NBC 10’s SkyForce 10 helicopter, an instrument tracks our proximity to it for security purposes. On Friday evenings, Saturdays and Sundays, his house is off limits. The FAA restricts it as a no-fly zone. We got as close as two miles on the way to the gas station.
Flying only takes up a couple hours for most shifts. The rest of the time amounts to waiting for the next call. It’s not a bad gig. SkyForce 10 is stationed at the lone heliport in Center City, on the Delaware River near Queen Village. Haas and Norton always find things to do, from taking in the views to fishing in the Delaware. Earlier this summer, with the wind just right, Haas was able to listen clearly to a Foo Fighters concert happening at the Susquehanna Bank Center.
“Like being a firefighter,” he says of all the waiting.
Being the closest landing pad to Center City has people-watching perks, too. Haas, Norton, Cochrane and Kent have seen famous people land at the heliport all the time, from local celebrities like Mark Sanchez to Donald Trump to megastars. Once, when Haas and Norton were returning from a flight, they had to keep circling around and waiting for another helicopter to land. Beyonce and Jay-Z proceed to get out. Mark Wahlberg has also landed at the heliport. Unlike Beyonce and Jay-Z, he wasn’t covered by security and actually spoke to them for a while.
Norton has been working as a helicopter pilot for many years after spending some time flying planes. For him, the views never get old.
“You get to fly a helicopter,” he says, “and get paid for it.”