Each Thursday, we take a look at a TV/radio story from the American-Statesman archives.

Today, we head back in time to 1999, when KEYE and KXAN had dueling news choppers.

My chopper is better than your chopper

By Diane Holloway

American-Statesman staff

Aug. 26, 1999

When the gas pipeline exploded in Liberty Hill a few weeks ago, the sky suddenly looked like Vietnam — not because of the billowing smoke and fire but because of the buzzing helicopters.

KEYE pilot Mike Adrian (1999 American-Statesman file photo)

Two of the choppers were owned by local TV stations; the rest were leased for the occasion by other local media, including the American-Statesman, as well as a couple of stations from out of town.

Everybody was hot on the trail of the arresting visuals, and the air was the best way to capture them. The sky was only slightly less crowded during the Lance Armstrong parade.

Floods, fires, tornadoes, train wrecks and other big-picture disasters are the meat-and-potatoes of helicopter photojournalism, and Central Texas is on the verge of a chopper war.

These broadcast buzzards are expensive, selling for well over $1 million without all the high-tech video gizmos. And that’s just the tip of the price tag. Monthly maintenance costs thousands of dollars, and so does the service of experienced pilots.

Is it worth it? The answer depends on whether you’re a “have” or a “have not.”

“Aerials give you an idea of perspective, what’s happening and where things are going,” said Jeff Godlis, news director of CBS’s KEYE Channel 42. “There’s no place in the viewing area that’s not within 15 minutes or so. We’re in the business of getting there and getting there fast, and a helicopter is the fastest way around.”

KEYE has been buzzing Central Texas since 1995, when the station’s local news debuted. Pilot Mike Adrian, who goes by Capt. Mike on the air, is at the controls of the flashy Enstrom 280C-Shark, dubbed Sky-Eye 42. This three-seater carries two cameras and Adrian, who doubles as pilot and reporter.

Late last month, KXAN Channel 36 answered the challenge with its bigger, more lavishly equipped Bell LongRanger 3, a bright-white six-seater emblazoned with five (count ‘em five!) NBC peacocks and royal blue trim. Piloted by Shannon Bower, the chopper is loaded with five cameras and always carries at least one reporter/photographer to handle the TV duties.

“We think flying a helicopter is a full-time job,” Bower said. “To also be trying to think about something else, like talking and running the camera, is overload.”

Do we sense a bit of chopper competition here? You bet.

Although pilots for KEYE and KXAN refer to it as “friendly competition,” the stakes are high. And these hugely expensive birds have to be more than flashy promotional vehicles — although they certainly are that.

“Well, yeah, people see you,” Godlis said. “But we think we get our money’s worth out of it. We talk about it every budget year, and we choose to have it instead of another satellite ground truck.”

So, the “haves” are happy. Really happy. When a big story breaks, like the Liberty Hill explosion or a weather disaster, they can have live pictures on the air in minutes.

But the “have-nots” insist they’re not at a disadvantage. For a fee ranging from $190 an hour for a small “bubble” helicopter to $675 an hour for a chopper similar to KXAN’s, the have-nots can rent a chopper and beam live almost as quickly.

The only possible hindrance is availability, since there are only a handful of choppers for hire in Austin.

“We’ve found we’ve been more than adequately served by renting one when we need it,” said Patti C. Smith, general manager of ABC’s KVUE Channel 24. “It’s a piece of equipment that’s not absolutely necessary for us to do our job. Also, I think my best resources at this station are my people. People can do anything.”

Time Warner’s News 8 Austin, a 24-hour local news service set to begin later this month, has something that looks like a helicopter landing pad on its roof at 17th and Colorado streets. But general manager Brian Benschoter insists there’s no chopper.

“It’s sort of gee-whiz stuff, and that’s not our game,” Benschoter said. “I guess it would be cool to have one, but I can think of better things to do with those financial resources — more reporters on the street, more producers in the studio to give us better content.”

Fox’s KTBC Channel 7 has a lease agreement with a helicopter service that gives the station priority over other clients.

“At this point, we’re not looking to clutter up the airways any more than they already are,” said KTBC’s general manager Danny Baker. “If we need the service, like we did the other day when the pipe blew in Liberty Hill or last year’s floods, we can take off in 20 minutes. But buying one? It’s one of those extras that right now I don’t think is necessary.”

Note the phrase “right now.” It’s a dog-eat-dog world in local TV news, and some people believe it’s just a matter of time before Austin rush hour looks like Los Angeles rush hour — on the ground and in the air. First there was one chopper flying, now there are two. Can four or five be far behind?

KXAN pilot Shannon Bower (1999 American-Statesman file photo)

“The first shot in the helicopter wars has been fired,” KXAN’s news director Bruce Whiteaker said with a chuckle soon after his shiny new bird began its daily morning traffic reports.

KEYE’s and KXAN’s helicopters both are essentially mini-studios, with cameras, microphones, live transmission capability, etc. Both have super-zoom cameras mounted on the outside that are gyro-stabilized for high-quality video.

KXAN’s zoom camera, as pilot Bower is quick to point out, is almost twice as powerful as KEYE’s, but the average viewer would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

KXAN leaped into the chopper war primarily to cover morning traffic on “FirstCast.” The station’s research indicated that traffic information was at the top of viewers’ wants and needs in the morning.

“We felt like we could justify a chopper simply for covering traffic, but if you own it, you can fly it for other coverage reasons,” Bower said. “And if you own it, you have access to it all the time. We’re set up to be a first responder. Our goal is to be over the news as soon as possible.”

When a story breaks that cries out for aerial coverage, KEYE and KXAN take to the skies without a second thought. KEYE parks at a private hangar near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport with Adrian nearby. KXAN is anchored at a hangar north of Austin with Bower and a reporter/photographer ready for action.

“It’s teamwork,” Bower said. “Having a skilled photographer is important, but having a pilot who understands what the camera is looking for is very important, too. It’s a very heavy load on one man.”

But KEYE’s Adrian insists double duty is no sweat. He has a split headset that allows him to talk to air traffic controllers and news producers at the station. He controls the remote camera with a box that sits on his leg.

With four years of pilot reporting, Adrian proudly points to some of the big stories he’s covered: the Amtrak train wreck near Round Rock, the Jarrell tornado and the explosion in Liberty Hill.

Adrian likes to fly his bird slightly below 1,000 feet “to take advantage of the view.” Bower prefers to hover at 1,500 to 2,000 feet, “so we can cover the story and not bother anyone.”

The pilots, who agree that aerial video offers a perspective that can’t be achieved from the ground, are friends and often chat with each other in the air.

“There’s certainly competition up there, but it’s friendly,” Adrian said. “I’m thrilled to see KXAN in the air because it’s kind of lonely up there. It makes it more fun to have somebody up in the sky with me.”

Although the have-not news directors deny it, the haves are convinced it’s just a matter of time before everybody’s flying.

“I’m amazed it’s taken four years for somebody else to get in the air,” Adrian said. “There are stories you really can’t properly cover any other way, and the pipeline explosion is a perfect example. The other guys do rent them on the big stories, but owning one is an advantage. The handwriting is on the wall.”