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By Larry K. Clark - As with all the different missions that helicopters can perform, the ENG segment has many different types of flying for pilots that want to work in this part of our industry. ENG encompasses traffic reporting, covering live breaking news and shooting background video for TV commercials or movies. The common element is a gyro-stabilized camera mounted on a helicopter.

Types of aircraft and equipment:

The most common aircraft is the BH-206 series with the AS-350 a close second in popularity. A few TV stations operate H-500 models, and the R-44 with a factory installed lightweight ENG package is gaining in market share due to the lower initial costs and lower hourly operating costs.

Most helicopters are equipped with an electronics package that will consist of a gyro stabilized camera made by FLIR or WESCAM that is operated by a cameraman (or lady) sitting at a console in the rear seat. The helicopter may have several more internal or external cameras to show other views, or to show the pilot or reporter’s face. The helicopter will be equipped with a microwave link that transmits the camera image back to the station for them to tape or put on-the-air live.

The helicopter may also be set up with one or more police scanners, FM radios that enable the pilot or cameraman to talk to ground units, the staff back at the station or even to fire or police units if necessary. Of course the aircraft will have the normal VHF radio(s) for Air Traffic Control, to talk with other helicopters in the area, plus a transponder and one or more GPS receivers. Also a cell phone that is wired into the aircraft audio system.

A typical day:

Some ENG helicopters are unable to land at the TV station downtown due to various restrictions, so they will stand-by at a local airport awaiting a dispatch call from the assignment desk. When breaking news happens, it’s a race to see which station will be first on scene and be the first to put up live pictures. The assignment desk will give you a very brief description of where you are going, and it's up to you to get airborne quickly, and head toward the story. Traditional flight planning can’t be done. You don’t know your destination nor much more about your flight as you start the engine. Enroute you will listen to scanners and other radios to figure out where you need to be. If it’s a big story, then the station will break-in to the regular programming, and take your video, and if the pilot is under contract to talk, his live report of what is going on at the scene.

Of course, you will be doing all the “pilot” things like dealing with Class B airspace areas, talking to control towers to get clearance into their airspace and keeping track of the police helicopters, EMS helicopters, private aircraft and traffic reporting airplanes. Add to that the news producer talking in your ear telling you "30 seconds until your live shot" and you have a very high workload that you must be able to handle and respond to quickly.

The TV stations want the helicopter to be available during the peak news times, and may even have the helicopter up “trolling” for news during the noon, 5 and 6 pm news shows. They may use your live aerial shots for the lead into the weather segment, or a “beauty shot” at the end of the news of the downtown skyline. If you are operating under FAR 135, you will be limited to 14 work hours per day. Most contracts with the TV stations allow for somewhere between 9 to 12 hours of helicopter availability, 5 days a week, with the helicopter on-call at night and on weekends. Some stations in major markets (big cities) will use two crews and have the helicopter available from early morning right through the 10 pm news at night. One crew will fly mornings for a week, then evenings for a week to alternate the hours.

Traffic watch helicopters will normally fly on a set schedule during the morning and evening rush hours, and while they are up, they may be sent to breaking news stories such as a fire or major accident. They may do live reports on-the-air to more than one radio and/or TV station. These pilots and cameramen fly a split schedule with time off in the middle of the day to rest, go eat, or run errands.

We have all seen the dramatic car chases on TV shot from the news helicopter, but those are the exception to sometimes a boring day. Many days are spent on standby with an occasional flight to shoot something like the empty sports stadium that will be used with a sports story package to be aired tomorrow.

The biggest negative about ENG flying is that it requires many long days, very little time off. And when you are off, you are tied to the helicopter. Always within one hour of being airborne over a story, even on weekends and at night. It can weeks, maybe months, of being on call, no beer, always carrying the pager and cell phone.

Salary Range:

Some full time ENG jobs will start as low as $40,000 for a five-day week. With experience a pilot should expect to earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year. To make the "big bucks" as an ENG pilot, you need to do a bunch of "on-the-air" reports and become part of the news team. Some pilots receive two checks, one from the helicopter company and one from the TV station for a total of more than $100,000+ per year.

If pilots are working part time, they can expect to be paid a daily rate between $150 - $200 per weekday, and if they are covering the helicopter on the weekend during a stand-by or on-call period, they can expect to be paid between $40 – 60 per day.

If you are working fulltime, you can expect to have medical insurance for yourself and your family, dental, vision, life insurance and perhaps a 401(k) plan. All of this depends upon whom you are working for. The high end would be working direct for a major network, the low end might be working for a small station in a small market. In the middle are the major companies that dominate the ENG business that have typical employee benefit packages.

Requirements:

To fly ENG you must know your city very well, every neighborhood, side street, every major named feature. If you want to do on-the-air and fly, you will need to sell you "reporter" skills and voice talent to the station. Make a promo tape of yourself. If you can do audio and video, while flying, would be best.

The major ENG companies will require 1000 to 1500 hours, and prefer time in type with a factory school. Of course their individual contract with the station, may require more. Remember, insurance requirements drive this more than anything else, just like other segments of the helicopter industry.

Knowledge of the ENG package is very valuable. There are many switches and pieces of equipment that a typical pilot has never seen before. Knowing what switches what video to what screen and to the microwave link, can be very important when you get a new cameraman to fly with. Wysong Enterprises is one of the largest installers of the ENG packages and they can provide information as to how most of these are operated by the cameraman and the pilot.

Finding a job:

Consider joining the National Broadcast Pilots Association (www.nbpa.rotor.com) and start networking with other members who can help you find a pilot slot that is about to come open. Seems like the pilots in any city seem to know who is leaving or what station is adding a helicopter, etc.

In your local area, contact the pilots and offer to work as a relief pilot, to cover for them on weekends and during their vacations and sick days. That can lead to a full time position. You may need to start flying “traffic watch” and build your hours and knowledge of the area to earn that ENG job at the TV station. Do some research and find a station and job that fits your needs.

Most stations contract with one of the major ENG suppliers of helicopters and crews to provide a “turn key” operation. You should send your resume to these companies:

EAC Helicopters Inc. www.eachelicopters.com

Sky Helicopters Inc. www.skyhelicopters.com

Helicopters Inc. www.heliinc.com

U.S. Helicopters www.ushelicoptersinc.com

Story and photo submitted by: Larry K. Clark, Helicopter Pilot, KHOU TV 11

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