On a major news story, there can be as many as four helicopters flying overhead in Berkeley, some sent up by news organizations such as KTVU Channel 2, others operated by the police

Berkeley has had its fair share of news-worthy events recently — be it a certain on-campus bake sale last month that caught the attention of the media nationwide, or a series of earthquakes significant enough to warrant attention. Incidents such as these tend to trigger the launch of helicopters into the skies above our city, be it those operated by the police or by news organizations.

The choppers are noisy and, particularly if the reason for their presence is unknown, can cause consternation. Berkeleyside gets a regular influx of emails and tweets requesting information about helicopters when they are hovering over Berkeley. Commenters weighed in on our story about yesterday’s quake: Chip wrote: “I would have gone back to sleep, but then some wretched helicopter started circling around.” And Resident replied: “I know, right? News helicopters should be banned.”

So we decided to find out a little more about news helicopters: when are they dispatched and why, and what are the rules they are governed by? We spoke with KTVU Channel 2’s News Director Ed Chapuis.

We’ve had a lot of helicopters over Berkeley recently. Is it more than usual?
There’s been a heightened sense of helicopters recently with the Occupy Oakland demonstrations in particular.

How many helicopters do you have?
We lease a helicopter that is based in Hayward. Most news organizations lease helicopters, they don’t own them.

What prompts you to launch a helicopter?
It’s very expensive to put a helicopter in the air and we have a limited number of hours [of use]. We are judicious about when we use it and cover only really major news: quakes, fires, civil unrest –events that are of high interest and that have a public safety implication.

How do helicopters add to your news gathering effort?
Footage gathered by helicopters can be a critical lifeline for the public and officials. They are a very important news gathering tool for us.

Who decides to send a helicopter up?
The news management team, which I oversee, makes the decision to fly it.

How does it work?
They are designed to launch quickly. There’s a pilot and a photographer on board.

Why would you send a chopper up for an earthquake such as the 3.6 magnitude one yesterday in Berkeley? What do you expect to see?
We fly the helicopter because you don’t know what impact the quake has had. There may be damage to buildings, freeways or BART. As soon as something like a quake happens our phones light up. People want information.

What are the regulations around flights and airspace?
We are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration — everything from airspace, safety and maintenance. Helicopters should not fly below 500 ft, but at KTVU we aim not to fly below 1,000 ft, unless there’s a weather situation and we need to get below clouds for example.

How many choppers might there be in the air at any one time?
On bigger news stories we may be up with three or four other helicopters.

The biggest issue Berkeleyside readers raise is noise. What’s your approach to noise?
We recognize that noise is an issue and we try to get in and out as quickly as possible. But sometimes the event we are covering is protracted, like a riot or march, and that requires us to stay up longer. The police helicopters are usually lower than ours so they many be making more of the noise. We do try to mitigate noise though. I get a handful of calls about noise [when our helicopter is up] and I always talk to the caller.

Anything else you’d like to share?
We cover major stories to provide information for viewers and for the safety of the community. We think the information we gather is important but we understand that we are part of the community and want to cause the least disturbance possible.

A 3.6 quake shakes Berkeley at 5:36 am Thursday [10.27.11]
Diversity bake sale brings out protestors, choppers, media [09.27.11]

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in one place, in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...