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.