Zoom Shot

One day in L.A., a helicopter changed television news forever.

In 1958 the first TV news helo, KTLA’s Telecopter, debuted in L.A. (Courtesy John Silva)
Air & Space Magazine

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.

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