Saturday, May 4, 2013

Karen Key, BHS 1972

Karen Key, BHS 1972

Dec. 7, 1982. A NEWS 4 helicopter crashed in a snowstorm south of Larkspur. Pilot Karen Key and aviation mechanic Larry Zane were killed. The National Transportation Safety Board said alcohol and poor judgment by the pilot were responsible.

KOA-TV pilot/reporter Karen Key, 28, and mechanic Larry Zane, 28, died when Copter4 slammed into a snowy stand of pine trees near Larkspur, Colorado, while en route to the crash site of a commuter airplane. She was promoted as the first female news helicopter pilot and reporter. Her blood alcohol level was reported to be 0.09, just below the legal limit of 0.10.

The challenge women have had breaking into the TV news field as frontline anchors. Beginning in the 1970s, women began to take a more active role many parts of television news, both behind the anchor desk as well as reporting from the field. Growing up in the PHX area myself, I got to see both the first appearance of the first female TV anchor for a Phoenix station in 1976 for then-CBS affiliate KOOL 10 (later KTSP-10 and now KSAZ-10, Fox affiliate).

I got to see firsthand how the politics of the TV/radio world worked during my first flying job as a traffic pilot in PHX. One of the other firsts I got to witness in the Phoenix television news scene was the nation's first female TV helicopter pilot-reporter. In 1982, 28 year old Karen Key joined then KOOL-10 TV as their helicopter pilot-reporter for their Bell 206B, rivaling the then-powerhouse NBC Phoenix affiliate KPNX-12 and their longtime, very famous and nationally-known pilot-reporter Jerry Foster and his Hughes 500D.


Key became a very popular personality in the Valley news scene, often covering the news quickly and efficiently, as well as assisting the local police during car chases and performing a few rescues in assistance to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, once a market cornered only by Foster.

Very quickly, the helicopter became the staple and the symbol of a professional news organization in many markets, often appearing as the station's representative in commercials and billboards. I personally got to meet Key at a hospital open house I went to with my dad, and which she was attending with her helicopter, and even got to have my photo taken with her and the KOOL Bell 206B. In late 1982, Key moved from Phoenix to Denver, CO, where she joined NBC affiliate KOA-TV4 (now KCNC, CBS-4) as the pilot for their "News 4" helicopter.

On the night of 7 December, 1982, the 42nd anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, a Pioneer Airlines Swearingen SA-227AC crashed during a night ASR approach to Pueblo, CO airport, killing the pilot and co-pilot of that aircraft. WX at the time was light snow and low visibility. A little over 100 miles to the north, Key was attending a get together when word came of the missing aircraft in Pueblo. Key and one of the flight mechanics for the helicopters drove to Denver-JEFFCO airport (now known as Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, on the NW side of metro Denver) to the airport FBO where a few of the local TV station helicopters were kept. WX at the time was OVC002-003 and low visibility of approximately 1/4, with fog and light-moderate snow falling.

Upon arrival at the FBO, they met with the crews of two of the rival TV station helicopters. One crew had attempted to depart and fly south to Pueblo, only to turn around and return to the airport. The second crew hadn't even brought their helicopter out of the hangar. Key began preflighting her helicopter, and during that time, was warned of the adverse weather encountered by the helo crew who had just landed, who's pilot tried repeatedly to persuade her not to launch.

Key, who wasn't instrument rated and only held a Commercial-Rotorcraft-Helicopter certificate, didn't heed their advice, seemingly wanting to get the scoop on the news story for her station in this day and age of television news ratings. As such, Key contacted JEFFCO tower, requesting and receiving an SVFR clearance. Key and her flight mechanic launched into the dark, snowy night headed southbound under radar advisories. Proceeding south along the western portion of Denver, Key eventually joined Interstate 25 near Castle Rock, continuing southbound.

Radar advisories were provided by Denver TRACON until terrain no longer allowed for radar tracking. Following I-25 southbound, Key's News4 helicopter was witnessed by numerous motorists travelling with landing and searchlight on, and above the highway at approximately 100 AGL and 50 mph, in fog, icing and moderate snowfall, picking their way down the interstate. Some of the motorists had maintained contact with the Bell 206B for 15 minutes or more, as it was travelling at almost the same speed they were in the prevailing WX and road conditions. Eventually, ground witnesses lost sight of the helicopter as the interstate made a bend in the road, and Key's helicopter took a course away from the roadway.

Key never made it to the Pueblo airport. The helicopter was found the next morning, having impacted pine trees atop a snow-covered knoll that it had just crossed, causing it to roll abruptly right and impact the ground on the downhill side of the knoll past the top. Both Key and her flight mechanic were killed on impact. Toxicology tests later performed on Key revealed a blood alchohol content (BAC) of 0.093%, just below the (then) legal limit, and people who had spent the day with her reported she had been consuming alchoholic beverages off and on for most of the day.

Probable Cause

*VFR Flight Into IMC Conditions -Initiated/Continued - Pilot In Command
*Impairment (Alcohol) - Pilot In Command

Secondary Factors

*Preflight Preparation - Inadequate - Pilot In Command
*Overconfidence In Personal Ability - Pilot In Command
*Lack Of Total Instrument Time - Pilot In Command
*Self Induced Pressure - Pilot In Command

Tertiary Factors

*Light Condition - Dark Night
*Weather Condition - Low Ceiling
*Weather Condition - Snow
*Weather Condition - Fog
*Terrain Condition - Mountainous/Hills
*Terrain Condition - Snow Covered

MikeD says

This accident, like so many before it and so many after it, highlights how the pressure to be first, the pressure to perform, the desire to get the scoop, and to become and stay well-known, especially in media or surrounded by it, has caused so many bad decisions in the aviation world; both in professional aviation as well as in general aviation.

Unfortunately, for the accomplishments that 28 year old Karen Key was noted and for the first in women's aviation she became, her death on 7 December 1982 is little remembered but for those who knew her personally or otherwise knew of her, since that Day of Infamy is normally presented the facts of the brief flame and subsequent flame-out of Karen Key.

It was flown for the best station in town by pilot/reporter Karen Key. Nothing was cooler than a beautiful blond woman flying a helicopter.

I remember changing the lyrics of an Air Force recruiting commercial: "Nothing can stop the U.S. Air Force, except for Karen Key in Copter 4!"

(Embarrassing, I know, but cut me some slack, I was only 10.)

My devotion to news helicopters changed after the night Key took off in Copter 4, flew into a snowstorm, crashed and impaled herself on the machine's control stick. An aviation mechanic also was killed. The cause of the accident was determined to be alcohol- and weather-related.

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