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Chopper stopper

News helicopters need to get flying again, members of Congress told the Federal Aviation Administration last week at a House Aviation Subcommittee hearing. "Talk to the NSC" was the FAA's response.

News choppers have been banned from flying in 30 metropolitan markets since Sept. 11. That's the majority of news helicopters that fly, some 144 out of 200, according to Roy Resavage, president of Helicopter Association International.

Keeping news helicopters from flying is probably unconstitutional, said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "The Supreme Court has recognized a First Amendment right of access to public information and places, particularly where the area sought to be accessed has historically been open to the public."

Even lawmakers do not know why the FAA has chosen to keep the choppers grounded. They repeatedly asked Steven Brown, the FAA's acting associate administrator for air traffic services, to explain. He said that many reasons were classified and could not be disclosed, although he did say helicopters in particular are a security concern because of their ability to hover in a fixed location at low altitudes. He also said the final decision is in the hands of the National Security Council and other related security agencies, not the FAA.

That answer wasn't good enough for many of the subcommittee's members: "The FAA is responsible for the paradox being pointed out today," Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) told Brown. "You are to blame. It's past time to get these questions answered." The NSC refused to participate in Wednesday's hearing.

Cochran asked why student pilots can still fly but news choppers staffed by experienced pilots cannot. In Orlando, Fla., for example, a student pilot crashed a plane into a wooded area, and TV station WFTV was not allowed to fly to the site to cover the accident. But the owner of the helicopter that WFTV leases was allowed to use it on behalf of Anheuser-Busch.

"This ban is significantly impacting the ability of local news operations to bring timely information to their viewers," Cochran testified.