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Ray Oechslin’s crew hasn’t taken a day off since the protests started.
He’s a program manager at U.S. Helicopters, contracted with the local CBS and Fox stations, responsible for scheduling the networks’ news helicopter pilots. Since the wave of protests broke out in Philly over the killing of George Floyd, he’s had to keep his departments fully staffed and on high alert.
“We’ve flown a lot of hours this last week,” said Oechslin, a news chopper pilot himself for the last 19 years. “The last two weekends, nobody’s been off. Everybody’s been working.”
Over the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Saturday, there were five, six, at times seven helicopters circling the Fairmount area to get their live shots for local and national news. It was the eighth day of protests over police brutality that happened all over the city, from Kensington to Center City to West Philly.
Local TV news stations needed them all covered. Oechslin said the past week has been in the top five busiest of his two-decade career — up there with the Amtrak derailment in 2015 and the fatal 2010 duck boat crash.
It takes a whole lot of coordination for pilots to capture all this footage without crashing.
“It’s like a symphony,” he said. “There are just so many things that fall into place.”
Chasing protesters ‘all over the place’
On May 31, the second day of protests in Philly, Oechslin was flying for CBS3. He shared the immediate Center City airspace with three other news choppers, two police helicopters, and additional medical aircrafts transporting folks to and from local hospitals. It was organized chaos.
“It was quite taxing,” Oechslin said. “We were running from position to position, running all over the place following as many protesters as we could.”
Though rare, the worst case scenario isn’t totally unheard of. News helicopters have crashed in Pennsylvania before — two cameramen died in 1979 when a KYW chopper crashed into the Scuylkill River while trying to film a jogathon.
Ultimately, it’s the helicopter pilot’s legal duty to keep the crew safe.
“Pilots have an obligation to see and avoid other aircrafts. They must do that at all times,” said John Gagliano, a Center City aviation lawyer. “They have to be aware of where other aircrafts are and where they’re going.”
Radio = essential communication
Luckily, choppers are more nimble than airplanes. Unlike commercial aircraft, they can move forward and backward, up and down, and spin on their axes. They also don’t need approval before takeoff.
But there are some strict rules regulating chopper flight.
If pilots are in the airspace of PHL or the Northeast Philly Airport, for example, they’ve gotta fly between 0 and 7,000 feet — and maintain constant contact with air traffic controllers, who will inform them of other aircrafts in the area.
Outside those areas, in places like Center City or over the Art Museum, pilots must hover between 7,000 and 15,000 feet, but not closer than 2,000 feet from a building. Though they operate without Federal Aviation Administration guidance, they’re constantly plugged into two citywide radio bands: one specifically for news pilots, and the other including those flown by police or area hospitals.
“We all know one another,” Oechslin said. “That helps a lot, too. We’ve been working with the same people for a long time. Everybody kind of knows what everyone is going to do.”
And generally, news copters never fly directly over crowds, said Gagliano, the aviation lawyer. They capture their shots diagonally. That way, should the worst happen, the choppers wouldn’t land on anyone.
Three teams working every day
Coordinating all this flight is a delicate balance. And for Oechslin, there’s the added challenge of keeping his department staffed.
For one thing, FAA rules state that pilots can’t fly for more than eight hours per day. Any more than that, and there’s too much risk they’ll get tired and make a mistake. Oechslin needed, at a minimum, to cover multiple locations each day last week for 12 hours — from noon to midnight.
Normally, he’d have two teams of pilot-plus-cameraperson each day, and one on call for the weekend. But for the past week and a half, there have been three teams working daily.
Even through the exhaustion of the past week, lifelong Philadelphian Oechslin said the job is a fascinating way to see the city.
“You’re actually able to see everything happening in real time,” he said. “There’s no delay. It’s unfiltered news…that the average public does not get to see.”