One day in L.A., a helicopter changed television news forever.
- By Stephen Joiner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2009
Courtesy John Silva
(Page 5 of 6)
On December 14, 1963, high above the Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Hills, a hilltop reservoir dam developed a crack. KTLA interrupted its sedate Sunday morning programming with Telecopter pilot Don Sides' terse narration (see video of the event here). Viewers looked down on the collapse of the dam in horrifying real time, watching as 300 million gallons of water rampaged through the neighborhood below, killing five people and destroying 277 homes. The Telecopter coverage is credited as the first live aerial broadcast of a disaster.
Two years later, a drunk driving arrest on an August night in Watts escalated into a 50-square-mile riot. As mobs stoned camera trucks, the Telecopter remained in the air and broadcasting. Leaning out the cockpit, Harold Morby captured exclusives for KTLA and also fed national networks. Even the LAPD and National Guard requested live views for tactical purposes. Morby recalls dodging behind plumes of arson smoke to evade bullets from a Cadillac stalking them below. The landmark coverage earned the first Peabody Award for an airborne newscast.
By the late 1960s, John Silva was restless with monochrome and the limitations of piston power.
Paramount had sold KTLA to Gene Autry's Golden West Broadcasters, and the small screen was blooming with living color. Silva was fascinated by a shot in the film Funny Girl, a long, rock-solid zoom from a helicopter. He learned that a gyro-stabilized platform had been developed for 35-mm movie cameras, and traced the inventor to a small Canadian company. The two collaborated on a version compatible with television cameras.
Silva sat down with Autry and laid out a big-ticket proposal: acquire a Bell Jet Ranger and create the world's first color Telecopter. Autry, once the Singing Cowboy, was also a World War II C-47 pilot and lifelong aviation enthusiast. Silva remembers Autry's response: "Spend whatever it takes, John. Just do it right."
Telecopter number 3 debuted with turbine-powered, gyro-stabilized, color coverage of the 1969 Rose Bowl parade. With that advance, Silva established the prototype of the newsgathering helicopter that prevails today.
Since then, a specialized breed of aviator has evolved, one adapted to the medium of live television. "We don't fly like normal pilots," says Desiree Horton, a contract news pilot for several Los Angeles channels. Today, at the stick of a jet Eurocopter on her way to breaking news, she explains how the job is distinctive. The shortest path to time-critical events is a straight line through busy, controlled airspace. After takeoff, Horton must secure first-come, first-serve clearance across the city ASAP, or risk being diverted by a controller swamped with requests from competitors.
Once on site, a skill set specific to live TV kicks in. Sharp movements can "tumble" even cameras that have been gyro-stabilized, so flight technique is constrained. When "getting vertical"—shooting straight down—gyro-stability is weakest. Avoiding vertical while covering a high-speed, zigzagging police pursuit requires concentration and dexterity.