One day in L.A., a helicopter changed television news forever.
- By Stephen Joiner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2009
Courtesy John Silva
John Silva never looked down. Fifteen hundred feet in the air, he decided he needed to exit the cockpit of a Bell 47. As the pilot held the helicopter in a tight hover above the Hollywood Hills, Silva stared straight ahead, gripped the frame of the cockpit, stepped onto the skid, and edged back toward a long aluminum box. "I was dedicated in my heart to making this work," he says, explaining his vertigo-defying act 50 years later. "And my calculations told me it would."
Only it wouldn't, yet.
Tracing innovation back to its origin can be tricky; a single concept is often rooted in more than one source. But in 1957, John Silva, alone, got it. Earlier, as chief engineer at Paramount Pictures' KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles, he'd designed television camera trucks to broadcast from the scene of breaking news. Groundbreaking stuff in the early 1950s. But Silva, a former Navy radar officer, was not satisfied.
He began thinking about ways to stay ahead of his rivals. "I was on the Hollywood Freeway one morning and it hit me," he says. The next advance for the video age: an airborne remote.
Silva wasn't thinking of a camera carried by a fixed-wing vehicle. He needed something that could hover. "The logical next step had to be a helicopter," he says.
Wary of competitors, he confided in no one. On topographic maps Silva plotted signal propagation from hundreds of points around Los Angeles County to a receiving dish atop Mount Wilson, 25 miles to the north. The connected dots proved that with a 2-watt, 2-gigahertz microwave signal, coverage was possible.
The bad news: Technical difficulties. No existing TV transmitting antenna would fit on a helicopter. And the standard remote camera configuration would result in a payload weighing one ton. Getting up close from altitude would require a 100-mm lens, and zoomed shots demanded near-Gibraltar stability. So did the fragile vacuum tubes in the pre-transistor broadcast equipment. A heavy-lifting eggbeater, rattling windows and blowing shingles off roofs, would be banished from city limits by the Civil Aeronautics Administration. But a lighter, politer alternative, like the Bell 47, could lift only 368 pounds. And shook like a Magic Fingers motel bed.
Still, Silva presented a proposal to station manager Lew Arnold. Arnold feared a high-profile failure, and the resulting fallout from station owner Paramount. Silva recalls the manager's advice: "Go back to what you're supposed to be doing and forget this thing."
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."
Ten days later, the Bell was trucked back to Van Nuys. Though saddled with nearly every ounce of the allowed 368 pounds, it aced the CAA's weight and balance test. On July 3, 1958, pilot/announcer Larry Scheer took the stick and John Silva occupied the cameraman/engineer position. The Telecopter lifted off and flew southeast over Hollywood, climbing into a line of sight with Mount Wilson. Silva deployed the antenna and began transmitting, and Scheer established two-way radio contact with technicians at the dish.
From the mountain came the word. But no picture.
"We were getting terrible vibration from the helicopter," Silva explains, "and the heat was horrendous." Knowing that an inflight failure would be hard to replicate on the ground for analysis, he made a snap decision. "I said, 'Larry, I've got to go out there.' "
Scheer brought the cyclic to neutral and suspended the -47 above the palms and pastel stucco. "I told myself, I am not going to look down," Silva recalls, "and backed out the door." Hunched on the right skid with no safety belt, he unlatched the cabinet containing the TV equipment, checking each component until he reached the microwave primary tube. It was dark. Bad vibrations.
Silva inched back into the cockpit and Scheer swung the helicopter toward Van Nuys. With Morby, White, and a Paramount machinist, they worked into the night further insulating equipment from the shake and bake. Next day, take two. At 12:48 p.m., with the roofs of Hollywood bungalows framed in the viewfinder, the two-way suddenly squawked: "We've got you!"
For the next three weeks, the team kept it all a secret.
On July 24, the station held a closed-circuit private preview at the Los Angeles Police Academy in Elysian Park, at which journalists, police, and fire officials watched, astounded, as two 27-inch monitors showed a live aerial shot of the interchange between the Hollywood and Harbor freeways. Four days later, at 6:30 p.m., KTLA preempted regular programming. In living rooms from the desert to the beach, the City of Angels from a thousand feet above—the gray-scale, low-rise L.A. of old "Dragnet" episodes—scrolled across television screens.
Regular broadcasts began on September 15, 1958, with Scheer piloting and Harold Morby as cameraman/engineer. "We had to fake it at first," Morby says today, "until we learned enough about it to work together as pilot and cameraman. I discovered pretty quick that I couldn't make fast pans and zooms when we were in motion."
On the Telecopter's undercarriage, technicians attached a flashing red "On The Air" beacon, visible for 30 miles. The whop of a helicopter and the dazzling light brought Angelenos bolting outdoors to wave; then they dashed inside to watch.
Up in the goldfish-bowl cockpit with no doors, it was "very noisy, very hot," Morby says. Preflight sometimes included packing temperature-sensitive TV equipment with dry ice. And that "hand-held" camera required shoulders and back too. "It actually weighed about 25 pounds," Morby says, "which got heavy after a few hours."
If the rotor's wood blades absorbed enough moisture, the rotor would become unbalanced, transmitting a bossa nova beat through the drive train and into Morby's live shots. To steady him, a camera seat was fabricated from bedsprings.
One problem the team avoided: boredom. "Sixteen years, 13 emergency landings," Morby says. Nothing they couldn't walk away from, though one close call could have dropped them in the Pacific.
Once a revenue flatliner, local news became a cash cow. During the Telecopter's first four months, KTLA sold a record $500,000 of advertising. Procter & Gamble spent another $250,000 specifically to sponsor Telecopter coverage.
In 1959, the project's success earned an upgrade. Telecopter number 2, a Bell 47J2, offered greater interior space, as well as increases in lift and range. All equipment was interior-mounted, obviating extravehicular troubleshooting.
Other channels began conceding KTLA's advantage. Minutes after an Orange County train wreck, Scheer and Morby were above the action. Three live airborne newscasts were already wrapped before a Channel 11 truck rumbled up. As the Telecopter circled above, "the crew got out and just stood there, looking up at us," Harold Morby says.
At some historic moments, the Telecopter was the only vantage point that was available.
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.
On morning and afternoon flights, Horton's flying has to avoid angles at which the California sun can zap the lens. Bright white buildings and rooftops play havoc with color balance, so she maneuvers those out of the shot too. Through it all, the helicopter must be oriented so the belly-mounted microwave beam clears the skids and camera pod.
Another necessary skill: "parked" hovering, high above a protracted incident (like an all-day hostage drama). Long-duration hovering can be draining. "It's really an odd sensation to hover out of ground effect at high altitude for so long," says Horton. "Sometimes we'll hang there for two or three hours on a story, then go refuel, and come back and hover some more. And though you're only hovering, you're still flying that aircraft every second. But it's really more mentally tiring than physically."
With every major L.A. television station having a news helicopter (there are eight total), the pilots are rivals, but they're amiable too. Horton maintains air-to-air chatter with the competition. "When you're flying news in L.A.," she explains, "you've got eight other helicopters racing you to get to the scene first. We're talking all the way." Pilots know their stations are monitoring live images from other channels' helicopters. "Basically we're expected to get that same shot, or something better," Horton says.
In John Silva's Los Angeles home, an Emmy award for inventing the Telecopter stands next to a model of little Telecopter 1. Only days from the golden anniversary of that first airborne broadcast, 88-year-old Silva is not looking back—or down. I wonder how he feels watching high-def coverage beamed 24/7 from news choppers like Desiree Horton's today, and knowing every one is a direct descendant of his 1957 brainstorm.
"I never thought about being a pioneer," he laughs. "All I ever wanted to do was get us there and get the picture—before the competition got it."
Contributor Stephen Joiner writes about aviation from Southern California.