News From Above
By Rob Seaman
If you watch TV – and let’s face it, who doesn’t, at some time in the day – then you’ve seen footage of some sort coming from a helicopter.
By Rob Seaman
If you watch TV – and let’s face it, who doesn’t, at some time in the day – then you’ve seen footage of some sort coming from a helicopter. Whether the event is a search-and-rescue effort, a natural or manmade disaster, a police pursuit, a traffic report or an aerial shot of some grand occasion, there’s likely an “eye in the sky” covering it and bringing the pictures and report into your TV.
| CTV uses its helicopters for some 600 flight hours per year.
(Photo courtesy Kitchener Aero)
Using helicopters to gather news has become known as Electronic News Gathering, or “ENG,” for short. The industry has evolved a great deal from its early days when a cameraman was seen hanging out the side of the helicopter or fixed wing aircraft to capture a shot and then rushed the footage back to the station for air time. ENG helicopters and their pilots today give news organizations a rapid and direct response to quick, developing and changing stories. Being first is not only bragging rights, it means credibility, audience and, in turn, advertising monies to the station and network. The “News” as a business segment is intensely competitive, whether it is local, national or international – and being the first to reach a scene and get a story makes all the difference.
| CTV’s specially designed Bell 206L-4 is well equipped to deliver all the latest news into southern Ontario homes. (Photo by Rob Seaman)
The industry has grown in size and importance to the point where it now holds a position as a stand-alone part of the rotorcraft world as a whole and has its own special interest association – the National ENG Helicopter Association (NEHA). The association publishes guidelines for its industry – pilots, engineers, photographers, reporters and station management – with a goal to keeping that industry and operations safe. It works alongside other “alphabets” as well, bringing interaction and professionalism to the ENG job and operations.
In a nutshell, ENG is all grown up. And in keeping with its maturity, it has driven its own unique technology developments to answer challenges that have come along and stay leading edge in a fiercely competitive business. Shoot, editing and transmitting multiple images with the announcers (or talent, as they more politely known) on board are commonplace today. Getting to this point has taken time. Just sending TV signals from a fixed location can be a challenge. ENG requires the ability to do it from a constantly moving platform. Steady cam technology and microwave transmission refinement have brought the age of “real-time” ability to the ENG world. Coupled with that, lighter, more compact, higher-resolution cameras and editing equipment have evolved. But like anything in the technology world what is new today, will be dated tomorrow. Upgrades and changes are ongoing.
During the first quarter of this year, Kitchener Aero Avionics (KAAV) completed and delivered a new ENG helicopter for the CTV television network. This is the fourth helicopter KAAV has now modified for CTV. The current project represents another first for both KAAV and CTV; this is the only high-definition-capable, ENG helicopter in the Canadian broadcast industry, and is widely believed to be one of only a handful in North America. It is one of the most advanced and highly integrated ENG platforms anywhere in the world, but then, as already noted, what is new today can be dated or superseded tomorrow. That said, the new pride of CTV went into full service at the end of January and is currently assigned to its Toronto coverage area.
Special Missions Mod
This new ENG helicopter project started with a base Bell 206L-4, which is basically the same as the previous two units that were developed with CTV by KAAV. The new helicopter was delivered to KAAV in the fall of 2010 and arrived by road with the fuselage having just received an overhaul and repainting. During the ENG fitting, a fresh engine and rotor blades were installed at the KAAV hangar.
| The new CTV Bell 206L-4 boasts a special Flir UltraMedia HD high-definition camera. (Photo by Rob Seaman)
The special ENG equipment that was integrated into this unit included a Flir UltraMedia HD Camera (Hi-Definition), MRC Strata PTX-PRO Microwave System, NAT AA97-CTV Custom Audio/ICS System, three Iconix HD Cameras (Forward & Aft Talent plus a Tailcam) and two Motorola two-way radios.
The cockpit also received a “special missions” upgrade that included a Garmin G500H Flight Display System. The system also displays ENG Video to ease pilot workload. Other cockpit avionics include a Garmin GNS 530W WAAS GPS/Nav/Com, King KY-196A VHF COM, Garmin GTX 327 Transponder, L3 Skywatch Traffic System, NAT AMS-43 Panel and FreeFlight TRA3000 Radar Altimeter System. As an added bonus, the “talent” has the option to work live from either the front cockpit, next to the pilot, or the aft suite adjacent to the engineer/editor.
KAAV handled all of the engineering, design and installation along with the avionics sales and STC, for the project. All told, the project took four months to complete.
A Full Report
Scott Gibson, manager, engineering projects at CTV Inc., has overseen the development of all of the CTV ENG projects. According to Gibson, the network uses its helicopters for approximately 600 flight hours per year. Each CTV ENG project is a step forward from the last. Gibson says that this HD unit started with the “TV gear” – “It was all new in this current build. One example is the multi-image display for the main monitor.” In the past, the network used several monitors. Now, it has a single, large screen with multiple images providing information from all the helicopter cameras, station feeds and more.
|CTV’s latest “eye in the sky” features lighter, more compact, higher-resolution cameras and high-tech editing equipment. (Photo by Rob Seaman)
“We used much better talent cameras this time as well to improve the look,” he says. “A new COFDM microwave system has been installed to give us better range for live transmission. The Evertz HD2020 is a piece of equipment that provides all the switching and processing of audio and video in the helicopter. In the past, we would have several pieces of equipment to perform the functions that the 2020 is doing.”
An ENG helicopter is an excellent tool to help keep the station at the top of its game, says Gibson – “and we are always open to using new equipment and ways of gathering and showing the news.” The latest CTV ENG rotorcraft is based in Toronto and replaces one that has been in continuous service since 2003. Another Bell 206-L, called “Chopper 9,” is based in Vancouver and was placed in service in 2004. It is operated by Talon Helicopters. (see, “Living Large,” March/April 2010). The Toronto-based crew has two dedicated pilots and a rotating crew of three or four cameramen/technical operators. The Vancouver-based crew uses more pilots, but a similar number of cameramen/technical operators. The Vancouver-based helicopter is also used for promotional work, whereas CTV Toronto has its basically for breaking news, special events and the CP24 morning show traffic and news coverage.
|The CTV cockpit received a “special missions” upgrade that included a Garmin G500H Flight Display System. (Photo by Rob Seaman)
While the Toronto helicopter has not been used in community events as such, Gibson says CTV has had it at the last two of their very popular “open house” events at the CTV studios, just north of the downtown area. At these events, the public has had the opportunity to sit in the aircraft and ask questions of the pilots and technicians. Given the unique qualities and capabilities of their ENG units, it begs the question will CTV make its footage open and available to community needs, for example, police investigations, Transport Canada and the like? Says Gibson: “We try and keep our independence from the police and such, but will help if requested in something like a search-and-rescue, fire or such.”
Lights, Camera, Action
Kitchener Aero is very active in corporate, commercial and general aviation avionics markets. In the 30-plus years that KAAV has been in business, they have been responsible for many industry firsts. In addition to conventional avionics sales, installation and repair, the firm has become highly regarded as Canada’s Special Missions Specialists. The company has developed a strong niche in helicopter avionics and provides some unique mods and STC work over and above the conventional avionics sales, service and support. Other helicopter work in hand or coming along soon to KAAV includes a FLIR Ultra 8000e installation in a Eurocopter EC-120B, Avidyne TAS 600 Traffic Systems installed in a number of Aerospatiale AS350Bs and an Agusta A-119 Koala Corporate Completion.