There's a reason you haven't been seeing any news footage on WBAL-TV from its much heralded News- Chopper 11 these days; the eagle is grounded.
Throughout July, the news camera crew for the NBC affiliate has refused to go up in the Robinson R.44 helicopter, citing concerns about safety and its pilots. The cameramen agreed to film aerial footage during the station's extensive coverage of OpSail 2000 during late June and early July, but have stood down since.
"We would never ask an employee to fly in an unsafe craft, or with a pilot who was not appropriately licensed," said Bill Fine, WBAL-TV's general manager. "There's no major problems, but like anything else, you want to make sure."
He said the helicopter, leased through the Metro Networks traffic and news agency, was kept from flying earlier this week as it underwent a "routine maintenance check" from top to bottom.
For most of the month, the helicopter has been used for traffic updates on the morning news, delivered by Jennifer Franciotti, a Metro employee who's hired on a contractual basis by WBAL. But the station has been limited to using the fixed cameras on the outside of the craft, without news footage from cameras operated by a professional crew.
"We would prefer a regular pilot," Fine acknowledged yesterday. "We are pushing Metro to live up to the terms of the contract." He would not specify what those terms were. Buzz Hiken, an official with Metro's Baltimore office, declined comment, but said he'd refer a reporter's inquiry to a colleague. No company official returned the call.
Among other concerns, camera crews complained that pilots were unable to hover smoothly - or safely - enough for them to film. On July 11, the Maryland local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union that represents the camera crew sent a critical memo to station executives, including Fine, setting out their concerns.
The letter stated that crew members believe the use of the helicopter fit neatly with the station's "live, local, late-breaking" slogan.
But the handling of the helicopter reflected "a seriously flawed operation," the memo stated, because of frequent pilot turnover, a lack of a backup pilot and "questionable" maintenance, according to a copy of the complaint read to a Sun reporter.
"Our safety is in jeopardy, leaving us no alternative but to remain grounded," the letter concluded.
A union official said the station was in discussions to resolve the conflict. "The company and I are working on it," said Lillian Firmani, an official with the IBEW local, although she declined further comment.
A news helicopter was first introduced to Baltimore's news programs by WJZ (Channel 13), a CBS owned-and-operated station, in the summer of 1998. WBAL, owned by Hearst-Argyle, followed suit within weeks.
Leasing the helicopters represents a six-figure annual expense, said Jay Newman, WJZ's vice president and general manager. Initially, the helicopters were heavily touted by the rival stations as they jostled for viewers.
"Helicopters get a lot of attention," Newman said. "They make noise, and they fly at altitudes where people see them. But really, the viewer doesn't care about the helicopter." Instead, he said, viewers care about content.
Although they have been promoted less prominently lately, the choppers are used extensively in stories deemed worth major coverage by the two lead news stations. In addition to the colorful tableau offered by OpSail, the choppers provided distinctive images during flooding last fall in northeast Baltimore, the Joseph Palczynski hostage standoff and the collapse of the pedestrian walkway on I-695.
"Safety is always paramount," said Newman, whose station leases its helicopter through Helinet Aviation Services, a Metro rival. "We've missed news stories because the pilot and his support staff say the conditions aren't right to fly."
Fine said his station was similarly adamant about the safety of the people who work there. "We've been addressing their concerns," Fine said. "It's something we need to work through with our guys, whom we value very, very much."