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Veteran media helicopter pilot explains how pilot would handle catastrophic event

NTSB and KOMO News crews look down on the aftermath of a the aftermath of a news helicopter crash Tuesday, March 18, 2014, in Seattle, Wash. A KOMO-TV helicopter crashed into a city street near Seattle's Space Needle, killing two people and critically injuring a person in a car on the ground. (AP Photo/, Jordan Stead)
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A routine news helicopter flight took a tragic turn in Seattle on Tuesday and has left members of the media and air traffic community wondering what went wrong.

Clark Stahl, a veteran media pilot who retired from KIRO TV last year, tells KIRO Radio's Dori Monson he knew both men killed in the crash.

"I'm a member of both the media community, of course, and the aviation community, both very, very tight communities. One way or another, you're going to know everybody involved," says Stahl. "I knew both Gary and Bill very, very well."

News photographer Bill Strothman and pilot Gary Pfitzner were killed in the crash Tuesday. Another man, 38-year-old Richard Newman, was traveling in a car and suffered severe burns in the crash.

Flying an aircraft with members of the media day after day, Stahl says everyone on board plays a role in keeping their air travel safe. He says he had a crew-type relationship with the photographers and reporters who traveled with him.

"I said, 'You're not a passenger. You are part of the crew. If you see something, hear something, feel something that you don't like, you just let me know. Or if you're not comfortable with anything I'm doing, we go back and we land,'" says Stahl. "So you rely on one another. It's a very symbiotic relationship."

Even in the most routine flights, Stahl explains the pilot is always prepared and always thinking about what to do if things take a dangerous turn.

"One thing a helicopter pilot is taught quite literally from the day that they get in their first helicopter [...] is that you're always looking for some place to go in the case of emergency."

In his days flying in downtown Seattle, Stahl says Broad Street, where the crash occurred Tuesday, was a favorable route just for that reason.

"I pretty much flew right down Broad Street there because that offers at least some place to go if you had some sort of a catastrophic failure," says Stahl. "So I can pretty much guarantee that he was thinking about that before he even knew he had a problem."

Once he knew something was wrong, Stahl says pilot Gary Pfizner then would have been trying to avoid secondary damage to structures, vehicles, and people on the ground.

"It sounds like with the number vehicles and people who may have been around down there, he did a pretty good job."

Navigating an aircraft around the busy Seattle skyline is a task that is getting more difficult as the city grows Stahl says.

"It seemed like every other week they were putting up a new construction crane, a new building goes up here, a new building goes up there, and the window of operation to land and takeoff from those rooftop helipads downtown has become more and more restricted."

Compared to other cities, Stahl says Seattle has never been that supportive of helicopter flight within city limits.

"They kind of did a compromise quite a few years ago to [allow] medical, law enforcement, and news media," says Stahl. "That will certainly be revisited."

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray says they will be looking at whether they should be handling helipads in the city differently.

"We want to understand what actually happened," says Murray, "so we can understand what we need to do in the future to prevent this from happening."

Stahl hopes they don't immediately jump to much stronger restrictions as a result of this incident. "I hope they don't have a knee-jerk reaction and try to restrict it completely, but who knows what will happen in that regard."

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration investigations are continuing at the crash scene in attempts to determine just what went wrong.

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About the Author

Whether it's floating on Green Lake, eating shrimp tacos at Agua Verde, or taking weekend drives out to the Cascades, she loves to enjoy the Pacific Northwest lifestyle as much as humanly possible.


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