One day in L.A., a helicopter changed television news forever.
- By Stephen Joiner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2009
Courtesy John Silva
(Page 2 of 6)
But some months later, Arnold was replaced by Jim Schulke, from Paramount headquarters. Silva delivered virtually the same pitch to the new boss. This time, he got a different reaction. "Jim told me, 'This is fantastic! What are we waiting for?' "
Schulke shared Silva's fear of being beaten by competitors. "Pick no more than two or three people you can trust," he advised. Engineers Harold Morby and Roy White were taken into confidence. The team was assigned secure workspace at Paramount's KTLA lot on Sunset Boulevard. Under deep cover, the Telecopter, as it was now called, was born.
Silva flew to New York to conspire with General Electric engineers. Intrigued by his unorthodox application, GE's Syracuse lab designed a microwave antenna that was just three feet long. It required only a straight shot to Mount Wilson and a level flight attitude. Back in Hollywood, Paramount's special effects shop used GE's blueprints to fabricate the antenna.
The platform chosen was the iconic Bell 47. An urban-friendly flyabout, "it was the only viable choice at the time," says Dick Hart Jr., president of National Helicopter Service in Van Nuys, which leased the helo to the station. "The next thing up would have been something much larger, less reliable, and hugely more expensive."
So 2,000 pounds of broadcast equipment had to be sweated down to 368. Any metal that could be replaced by aluminum, was. To eliminate heavy, redundant power supplies, all electricity was produced by the helicopter's generator.
Recent advances in technology also worked in the team's favor. Instead of the standard tripod-mounted field camera—the size of a steamer trunk—Silva acquired a new hand-held GE vidicon, saving several hundred pounds.
In cloak-and-dagger mode, a Bell 47G2 was spirited to an "undercover" location: Dick Hart Sr.'s Studio City back yard. "Dad had a six-acre lot where we could hide the copter and nobody could get near," Hart Jr. says. As Hart Sr. and John Silva supervised, National Helicopter mechanics and Paramount engineers hacked, cut, and fit.
Maxing out the payload imposed "all sorts of issues" on the small helicopter, Hart Sr. says, "particularly center of gravity." But the mods proceeded without the degree of rigor required now. "It was a more innocent time," he says. "We could self-approve alterations and installations using standard [government] data without having to meet all the engineering and flight test requirements we'd have to meet today."