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

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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.

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