On July 27, 2007, as I was leaving work at Denver’s KWGN-TV, I heard a radio news report about two Phoenix TV news helicopters colliding in mid-air. A chill ran through me and I turned around and went back to the newsroom.
Once inside, I looked at the bank of TV monitors to try to figure out whose helicopters were involved. It didn’t take long to see that it was KTVK’s NewsChopper 3 and the ABC affiliate, KNXV’s Air 15, that had crashed and fallen into Steele Indian School Park, one of the few open areas in crowded downtown Phoenix.
I was devastated to learn that the NewsChopper 3 crew was Scott Bowerbank and Jim Cox. They were killed along with the Air 15 pilot/reporter, Craig Smith, and photographer Rick Krolak, whom I did not know.
I had flown NewsChopper 3 with pilot/reporter Bowerbank and photographer Cox.
Hearing the recording of the SkyFox 10 pilot, Don Hooper, who witnessed the midair happen, reporting the accident to the Phoenix airport control tower still shakes me up.
“Oh, man … oh, Jesus … oh my gosh,” Hooper said, gasping for breath. “Phoenix Tower, SkyFox 10—we’ve had a midair collision over here at the park! Two helicopters … two helicopters down! Oh my God. It’s… oh … it’s channel 3 and oh, oh, and I don’t know who else. Stand by. “
Both pilot/reporters were live on the air when the crash occurred, covering what had become a run-of-the-mill police pursuit downtown. Because it was going on during a noon newscast, everyone in town was covering it.
When the collisions happened, the NewsChopper 3 live signal was lost instantly; the Air 15 signal was not.
“Oh, geez!” Smith said, on the air, before he began to scream, and was mercifully cut off.
The NTSB investigation, which took about two years to complete, found the “probable cause” of the crash to be “both pilots’ failure to see and avoid the other helicopter. Contributing to this failure was the pilots’ responsibility to perform reporting and visual tracking duties to support their station’s ENG [Electronic News Gathering] operation.”
This is typical of an NTSB conclusion, but a forensic recreation created by Kitchen Sink Studios, Inc., “based on radar data collected, key witness depositions and actual video footage taken from each aircraft prior to the collision,” graphically illustrated that Bowerbank was hovering over the pursuit scene as he narrated, and that NewsChopper 3 was struck from behind by Air 15, which was moving forward as Smith focused his attention on the pursuit action below.
At the same time, the families of Scott Bowerbank and Jim Cox announced an undisclosed settlement had been reached with U.S. Helicopters, the owner of Air 15.
Despite an emotional reaction at the time suggesting that the driver fleeing from Phoenix Police could be complicit in the journalists’ deaths, nearly three years to the day of the crash, Christopher Jermaine Jones pleaded guilty to more than 35 counts stemming from the chase, but was not charged in connection to the four men’s deaths. Eligible for a sentence of well over 400 years if convicted by a jury, Jones accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
I was asked to speak to one of our reporters for an on-camera interview the night of the disaster, and I did. I can’t remember what I said, only that I was in tears as I said it. Bowerbank and Cox were two friends at the top of their games, and I still can’t believe they’re gone.
Today, a permanent granite memorial marks the site where the two aircraft fell. It includes photos of the four men and the text of “High Flight,” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.:
“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds
-and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand and touched the face of God.”