Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Helicopter Safety


In more than 8,000 plus flights (I stopped logging as pilot-in-command several years ago) as pilot, I don't remember one cinematographer or operator asking to see under the engine cowling, log books, or maintenance records before a flight.

In the motion picture business, cinematographers have got to be the most detail oriented of the bunch. Just read CML and you get a feeling that there's not an question that can't be answered correctly by at least two CMLers.

So why is it, when it comes to helicopters, the DP, operator and Director will get into any helicopter booked by some inexperienced production assistant looking for the "best" rate?

There have been a number of so-called helicopter accidents, especially here in Los Angeles. Like almost all of the aviation accidents, the accident begins before the blades start turning. Recently a KTTV news helicopter lost its hydraulic system. The woman at the controls was too small to handle the 90lbs of pressure on her collective and cyclic and lost control, causing the A-Star to nose into the ground. Both she and her camera operator suffered severe injury. She wasn't able to fly the ship. A flight test with an experienced instructor would have discovered this.

In New Jersey, a 2.7 million dollar news helicopter made a hard landing in a shallow river, when its pilot misidentified an engine failure. Pilot and camera operator injured. Helicopter destroyed.

In the desert just outside Los Angeles, a commercial pilot killed his observer when he clipped his rented Bell 209 Colbra helicopter blades into a rock outcropping, while a production crew on the ground shooting a Black and Decker commercial filmed on. The production company was later surprised to lean that the well known pilot had very few hours in the military machine and wasn't competent to make the flight.

Before a flight, the cinematographer and operator should look into the company's accident history. Unfortunately, the FAA and NTSB do a poor job of detailing a specific operators accident history. Talk to the pilot and see what his or her experience is in the same type of helicopter to be flown for the mission. See log books. A pilot with little to hide will pull them from a flight bag without hesitation.

Do a walk around the aircraft. Look for oil leaks. An LA City Fire Department Helicopter landed on a school playground to pick up an injured child. Minutes after taking off enroute to the hospital, the helicopter crashed killing the child, co-pilot, and two paramedics. Investigators found oil on the playground where the helicopter's tail boom was positioned. The 'copter's pilot reported that he lost the tail rotor over the Hollywood sign. A post crash look at the recovered tail rotor transmission showed preflight failure that caused the terrible "accident."

Have the pilot show you the engine compartment. Look for frayed oil and fuel lines. If you wouldn't use a frayed power line for your camera, why would you allow one for the helicopter you're seated in. We had one very well known news pilot here in Los Angeles that flew with a tampon stuffed into an oil drain to keep his oil leak from damaging the helicopter's paint job. Lucky for him the station leased another helicopter.

Use good common sense. Wait a minute, you're getting into a helicopter.

Bob Tur (HD True Believer)

Because there are production people who, in a so considered, professional production environment is assumed to be professional and competent in their work and as such, have to be trusted as a basic professional respect (Otherwise, why have they been hired in first place? Nepotism, perhaps?).

Also because it is not the director's or DP's task to take care of things production should take care of (Otherwise, what is production hired for? To waste money, perhaps?).

To what you can add not many production people are aviation savvy, and that's certainly understandable.(Or should production people have precise knowledge of every field of human knowledge? Should they hire a consultant for every professional environment or situation coming across a production? A bit expensive I'd say. Should we ban any non-big budget production then?

Anyway, thanks for the info on how do we have to check for flight security clues. Nevertheless, it should be taken into account by production professionals rather than directors or DP's.


Bob Tur wrote :

>In more than 8,000 plus flights (I stopped logging as pilot-in-command several >years ago) as pilot, I don't remember one cinematographer or operator asking to >see under the engine cowling, log books, or maintenance records before a flight.

I doubt that any of it would mean anything to me!

My approach has always been to make sure that I get people that I know and respect.

Where I have to work in an area hat I don't know anyone I ask people who may know.

I don't get and film from strange helicopters after a very nasty bump at Taledega in '87



Come on Bob, do you take a walk around the 747 before you fly? Do you check the tires on the cab before you ride?

You have to trust the people to know their job, by choosing the right helicopter/airline company. The key to helicopter filming is to check the PILOT as being a recognized film pilot, preferably one you know well, and work on the basis that the pilot wants to come home too. Any production company who wishes to go cheap with a non film pilot can easily be argued with on the basis that an experienced film pilot can save hours of 'chopper time/film/tape etc as he is effectively the camera operator.

David Wakeley

I've always trusted the competence of the helicopter mechanics and the pilots without question as most people do. I think most people like myself stand in awe of these incredible machines and the warriors that fly them. Bob Tur brings a vast amount of helicopter to this list and brings up several questions to seriously consider. Although, I don't walk around a 747 whenever I fly on one I hope someone has. If one requested this, I would imagine the airlines would have a good laugh. But now that Bob has given me some insight then maybe I will take a quick look around for hydraulic leakage.

Helicopters seem to be crashing at an alarming rate and it is usually pilot or mechanical error. I never would have thought of the importance of a pilot who was strong enough to fight the controls in an emergency. Younger pilots scare me and I feel much more comfortable flying with pilots who have actually taken off and landed while under heavy machine gun fire. Jao Fernandez, a DP I worked with several years ago, refuses to fly in a helicopter. It paid off for him on an Aaron Norris movie in the Philippines when the helicopter crashed killing one or more people (Can't remember the exact details). They are volatile pieces of machinery and should be viewed as such. Remember "The Twilight Zone?" Kevin Emmons was in a crash in the ocean. His head was split open by his headphones. The crew was rescued by a boat but when the boat came back to salvage the camera gear, sharks had infested the water.

On a music video that One Heart produced a someone from production who had never flown in a helicopter wanted to fly back to the airport from the location with the pilot. On take-off they hit a MUSCO light or cherry picker killing both people, I think the pilot might have lived. However, jumping to the other side of the fence, a specialty cameraman can make a good living risking his for beautiful images. Frank Holgate, Ernie Reed, Jack Cooperman (I think) have all done well in this area and are still alive. You just have to ask yourself, "Is it worth being killed?"

Bob, thanks for the insight.

Tom "Better Safe Than Sorry" Jensen

<x-flowed> Flying a lot in the Northern Arctic (heli and small plane) I was not surprised that heli pilots always required their mechanic to accompany their flights. Same in the 'Nam. Questioned, the pilots claimed that only their own mechanic would make sure the Jesus-bolt was properly secured. I didn't ask what the Jesus-bolt was but I have a good idea...

For a News cameraman 'acceptable risks' are usually carefully weighed against monetary gain. Shooting in 'Nam or other war places netted 2 to 5 times daily rate, depending on the place and risks. It would increase exponentially if the pilot was Vietnamese. They often replaced some very important (expensive) drive chain with an ordinary bicycle chain and general service was execrable. Also, the Americans never gave them new Hueys, only the ones shot up and provisionally repaired.

I suppose I've been very lucky. Outside a very hard landing with a Bell in Toronto, flown by a well-known female traffic reporter who insisted on repairing her make-up while holding the whatever stick between the knees because I was pointing my Beaulieu at her, causing me a bloody nose, nothing serious happened, cross toes, legs and other appendages. Yet after God knows how many hours, I would not know how to decipher a logbook. And declining a flight in the Arctic because some oil smear on a cowling gets you stuck for weeks in some forsaken and very cold place...

I agree with Bob Tur that as many precautions should be taken before entrusting oneself to a plane driver. Yet one's job is also on the line: to refuse some flights might be prudent indeed but might also cause one to sit at home, alive but poorer. And we DID choose to work at this job. One could also work at a Bank, of course. Choosing to be a pilot also increases their insurance fees and decreases life expectancy, no?

Robert Rouveroy csc The Hague, Holland

>And declining a flight in the Arctic because some oil smear on a cowling gets you >stuck for weeks in some forsaken and very cold place...Vietnamese...often replaced >some very important (expensive) drive chain with an ordinary bicycle chain

Did a shoot in the Antartic many years ago. We were suppossed to have two Russian helicopters at our disposal but one crashed a few weeks before our arrival and was replaced by a shiny new twin engine machine from New Zealand. First trip up I sat beside the pilot and many miles into the trip a piece of the instument panel fell off and landed on my lap. Then one by one red lights started falshing on the instument panel untill it looked like a Christmas tree. (Robert the Vietnamese learnt aircraft maintenance from the Russians) The Russian pilot (no english) just shrugged when I pointed this stuff out and as the lights were all in Russian I could not tell if they were the "toast is burning" warning light or the "your all going to die" warning light. I survived the flight but on return to ship I told the producer I fly with those nice New Zealand boys or I don't fly.

Tom Gleeson

Hey Guys, Interesting topic! I have to agree with Bob, I think that everyone that climbs into a helicopter with a camera in their hand should be somewhat responsible for their own actions, especially if your working as a cinematographer. However, David Wakeley is correct as well. A cameraman shouldn't be expected to know everything about a helicopter, to make sure that the pilot or mechanic is doing everything right!

Aside from that, you are concentrating on your own job, which is. . ''Getting the shot'. . and that should be what you're thinking about. I honestly feel that you need. . ('Let me say that again') You NEED .. . to trust the pilot to do his or her job--. But, I think what Bob is trying to convey to everyone, is that you can do your job, but you don't have to do it blindly!!!! You need to be pro-active, make yourself part of the crew, the aerial unit!.

Don't be an innocent by-stander, ask questions, and point things out to the pilot that might not look right to you--even if you think it's a silly question! In my opinion, when safety is involved "There is no such thing as a silly or stupid question".

My advice would be this-- If you are planning to do any type of aerial filming, or if you are hired to be involved in filming in or around a helicopter, ask questions, be pro-active. If you are flying with a motion picture pilot that you haven't flown with in the past, or that you're not familiar with, ask around-- find out if other DP's or cameramen have flown with him/her. If not, get his telephone number from production and call him!!! Talk with him about the shot, his experience, and any safety concerns that you might have. If you're comfortable with the answers to your questions, then great!!! If not-- then call production, and say "Hey, I just got off the phone with this pilot guy and I don't feel comfortable". Your own instincts are usually right on. . . and as Bob said before me, "use common sense".

But remember everybody; you can't forget that a helicopter is still a flying machine and a piece of equipment. It's just another tool that we use for the purpose of filming. It's just like the many other types of tools that we use to film with. Anything and everything can still go wrong, even if you do all the right things, ask all the right questions and fly with the best film pilot. There are certain risks with everything, just like a stunt goes bad, a crane falling, or a cameraman who slips off the edge of a cliff during a shoot.

My feeling is that we all need to be responsible, to a certain degree, for our own safety, and not be afraid to say-- "No way! that doesn't look safe" --ask a lot of question, point things out that you're not comfortable with.

We should try to keep this in prospective and try not to talk all crazy about how unsafe or volatile helicopters are-- That kind of talk just scares everybody unnecessarily, and I'm not sure that we want that kind of negative buzz going around in our industry. Let's try to stay positive, safe, and especially smart.

If you're interested in learning more about aerial cinematography, you might want to visit this web site: -- "Go figure. . eh! The site was designed by a cameraman and a an AC (not a pilot) So, I think it can be very helpful in answering some questions as well as being educational to anyone wanting to know more about aerials.

My best to Bob Tur, and everyone concerned with keeping us all safe. Have a great holiday . . .

All the best,

Ray McCort

Aerial Cinema Productions

Just wanted to say thanks guys, I just had my first helicopter nightmare... I tossed and turned all night long dreaming about helicopters and inexperienced pilots and little bolts that are worn down....

Luckily I woke up at 5:30 am and was able to escape that hell....

Phil Klapwyk -

Gaffer Bright

Lights Inc. Vancouver, BC Canada

Hey, this has been very informative for many people and specialy for me, as a young camera operator I have done many aerial shots from different machines, and the safety issue has always had conflict with my lack of knowledge about aircrafts and my attitude of doing whatever for showing my skills. Every time I go inside a helicopter I just feel that I cant operate the camera since my hands and body are covered by cold sweat, but at the end I fight the fear and talk a lot with the saints, close my eyes and ask for a safty return. Safety is now the most important thing for me. I remember once in a small cessna (or something like that) the had to pull out the side door for the camera, that very small plane had to turn left to let me point my digibeta to the subject, in that moment I was tight with an arness that was tight to the pilots chair, when we landed, I was sick and very upset for the conditions of the flight so I went running far from the plane to buy a drink, and...BINGO, I wasnt tied to the pilots chair. Please be careful, fight the fear to CHECK SECURITY.

Miguel del Valle

One thing I've done is purchased a rock climbing harness, an assortment of locking carabiners and nylon slings from a local climbing store. I prefer the locking type that you can twist and unhook with one hand should the need arise. Anyhow, I'm able to attach myself to the helicopter and also run a safety line to the camera. The pilots usually appreciate the effort as they don't want things falling out of the silly things either.

Don't forget the camera tape for your shoelaces.

All my best,

Chet Simmons

>Just wanted to say thanks guys, I just had my first helicopter nightmare...I tossed >and turned all night long dreaming about helicopters and inexperienced pilots and >little bolts that are worn down....

The biggest problem that I've had with helicopter shooting is that ALWAYS the day before you do a helicopter shot EVERYBODY on the crew even down to the PAs has a whole list of horror stories to tell about crashes and incidents.

>The biggest problem that I've had with helicopter shooting is that ALWAYS the day >before you do a helicopter shot EVERYBODY on the crew even down to the PAs has >a whole list of horror stories to tell about crashes and incidents.

I have that problem with a particular DP and even commercial airlines.


To Bill Bennett's excellent advice that prospective aerial camera people not try to be aircraft mechanics, I would add that very, very few helicopter/film accidents are the result of mechanical failure. You can verify this for yourselves by visiting the NTSB website at  This will also link up to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada's website.

To all the excellent advice given, I would add the following:

1. If you are going to be flying over any appreciable amount of water, get a real life vest and wear it. I have it on very good authority that it is extremely difficult to don a waist type life vest if you are already in the water. If you are injured in the process of ditching, it may very well be impossible.

One of the best is the Switlik HV-35C, Helicopter Crew Vest.

2. Another item to consider is a HEED (Helicopter Emergency Egress Device) bottle. Essentially this is nothing more than a tiny SCUBA tank. It's about the size of a Cannon 10-100 Zoom. It contains about 40 breaths of air. It doesn't take much imagination to realize how handy this device could be in the unlikely event of a forced landing at sea - or a post crash fire.

They are made by Submersible Systems Inc., Huntington Beach, CA 1-800-648-3483.

3. Also consider a personal EPIRB. The one on the helo will go down with the ship.

4. If you are going to ditch, jettison everything in the cabin that you can -- camera, mags, etc. On impact loose items can do you more harm than the actual impact.

5. For the same reasons consider wearing a flight helmet.

6. For extended flight over water think about a Mustang or Stearns work suit. These are half overall and half survival suit. They are worn by off-shore oilrig personnel. They are available through most commercial fishing suppliers.

7. I would avoid using any device -- such as rope or carabiners -- other than standard quick release seat belts or gunners' belts to secure myself in an aircraft. You may be a skilled mountaineer, expert in tying and untying rope, but the guys who may be pulling you out of a burning wreck might not be.

8. I saw in a recent documentary that the Swiss Alpine Rescue Service people have devised a system of plastic extensions that fit over the tips of the helo rotor blades. These provide a very audible and tactile warning to the pilot when the extensions contact terrain thus the pilot knows without trying to guess that the helo is too close to the mountain. This is not as crazy as it may sound. Viet Nam helo pilots routinely used Hueys to cut the jungle canopy to clear landing zones. The tips of the blades can sustain a surprising amount of damage before the helo becomes unflyable. However, it helps to have an unlimited supply of new rotors.

9. There is nothing like the thrill of combining photography and flying -- and getting paid to do it. Have fun, be safe. No shot is worth dying for.

Brian Heller

Brian couldn't have summarized helicopter safety better -- Excellent practical and technical advice!

Talking about things that can happen and how to prevent catastrophe is the first step to making everyone aware of aviation safety. I was just about to comment, about how I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of someone donning a harness while they were jammed in a Tyler mount seat of a helicopter-- When Mr. Heller confirmed my fears. I realize that it sounds like it makes more sense to be strapped in as tight as you can in a helicopter with the door off, but to the best of my knowledge there really hasn't been too many accidents involving cameraman falling out of a flying helicopter! My fear would be just as Brian explained-- a hard landing or fire and not being able to evacuate quickly enough because either the pilot, or the rescue team cannot untie the harness.

I know that this all sounds very graphic and heart stopping, but not all helicopter accidents are fatal, and we should all be prepared as much as possible for such a non-scheduled helicopter incident-- so that everyone can walk away from it. It's unfortunate that I'm the only film pilot commenting on this topic, it would be very helpful for everyone to have more input from other professional motion picture pilots and their feelings about safety.

But, if you feel more comfortable accepting advise from one of your own, then you can't go wrong with following any one, if not all of Brian Heller's safety points. Mr. Heller's helicopter experience is the closest advice that you could get, as good as any film pilot could offer-with the added experience of actually sitting and shooting from the 'Hot seat'. I have not personally flown with him, but his aerial experience and reputation in our industry precedes him. Be safe guys!

All the best,

Ray McCort

>but to the best of my knowledge there really hasn't been too many accidents >involving cameraman falling out of a flying helicopter!

Unfortunately I know of a case where this happened, it was a large sized military helicopter, the cameraman, not shooting at the time, was strapped into a seat, had cause to unbuckle and stand up near the open door (possibly to secure equipment). The helicopter banked and cameraman, either thrown a little off balance or losing sense of balance by seeing horizon disappear, fell out. Tragic.

A UK police force were introducing their dog squad to deployment by helicopter. It was coming in to land and the door was slid open at 200ft. Now, when the dog is in a patrol van and the door is opened, it jumps right out out and starts chasing the first person it sees running.....

The dog wasn't strapped in, luckily the dog handler, who (briefly) had the dog lead in hand was.

Mike Brennan


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