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 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.

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