It’s so early that the sun is still sleeping and the only light over Whiteman Airport in Pacoima, California is the weak glow from a few street lamps on the perimeter of the airfield. I can just make out the figure of pilot Mark Kono waving me through a series of security gates before he hops in an idling pickup truck and motions me to follow. Night still cloaks the small airport, dissolving the structures. Hangars and tarmac-harnessed planes rise up in the headlight beams then fall away. I’m creeping through at idle, concerned I’ll sideswipe a Cessna with the Roadkill Viper. The rear-view mirrors are empty black holes, everything behind me has ceased to exist. It’s kind of funny that the morning starts out with this blind crawl since the reason for my visit is to get the best view possible—1500 feet above the city in the KTLA news and traffic helicopter.
Mark is used to this eerie commute. He and his reporting partner, Eliana Moreno– whose job title of Aerial Photo Journalist make me think of a trapeze artist above a war zone with a camera, not entirely inaccurate–come to this tiny airport before dawn five days a week to fly the charcoal gray KTLA helicopter along the crash and stall-prone highways of Los Angeles county. Take-off time is usually around 6:30am, but Eliana and Mark get to the hanger at 4:00am so they can be ready in case of a breaking news story. I join them, along with fellow reporter, Jeff Baugh, in a blessedly heated office in a hanger housing two Astar training helicopters, and also blessedly, a coffee maker. The office walls are papered with aviation posters, flight maps, and photographs of helicopters hanging terrifyingly low over stadiums and forest fires. A flatscreen in the corner is playing the morning news on mute, setting the scene for our scheduled traffic input. The décor is half hobby store models of aircraft and half obvious hand-me-downs from someone’s house. A faux Tiffany lamp and a tin of popcorn with a golden retriever on it share desk space with a scaled down ‘copter perched on a bank of police and fire scanners. Eliana is listening intently to several of the scanners at once. It’s babble to me but she says that experience makes certain phrases stand out. “I can hear it in the tone of voice,” she said, “I can tell from a word or two if it’s a big chase, a big fire, or just something boring.”
“What are your favorite kinds of stories?” I ask and Mark and Eliana answer in unison. “Pursuits!”
“What are the worst?”
“Anything that’s just hovering over no action, like, brush fires, standoffs, trench rescues…” Mark starts before Eliana interrupts,“Bear in a tree,” she says, laughing, and Mark and Jeff snicker. “The desk reporter always asks you why the bear is in the tree,” she continues, “like, I don’t know. Isn’t that what bears do?” They all start laughing, and their conversation shifts to gossip about various news anchors and fellow pilots and then to helicopter crash stories. They aren’t being callous, it’s that same tough shell you notice when EMTs and brain surgeons are talking about their jobs. There is real danger in what they do. Think about it too long and you wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning. I sip my weak pod-coffee and try to look like I am totally ok with hearing helicopter crash stories right before going up in a helicopter.
The history of news choppers started in Los Angeles, with KTLA Channel 5 in July of 1958, and it almost ended then too, as pilot Larry Scheer and engineer/cameraman, John Silva fought heat, vibration, and a near miss with a giant antennae to send the first live aerial shots of the Hollywood freeway to living rooms across the city of angels. The whole first broadcast is on YouTube, and a small grainy photo of that first Bell flight is taped to Eliana’s stack of scanners. Now it seems unthinkable to have a morning news show without a live view from above the city.
I’m just starting to fall asleep in the cozy darkness of the KTLA ‘copter cave when Mark says it’s time to go. We pile into the truck and head out thorough the warren of hangers to where the Channel 5 bird is waiting for us. A ground crew takes care of fuel and daily inspection, but both Mark and Eliana walk around the machine checking its carbon-fiber-hulled camera pod and various hinges and wires. “Once a door fell off a news ‘copter, but it wasn’t us,” Mark says as he waves me onboard. I make a note to not lean on the door, a vow I promptly break as soon as we lift off and I can see all the San Fernando Valley in the new light of the rising sun. It’s beautiful, and I press my face against the window trying to see my house.
The KTLA 5 Helicopter is an Airbus Eurocopter AStar AS350. I quiz Mark about its tech details, and he quizzes me about the Viper in return. We’re two happy gearhead nerds in the air. The AStar is powered by a single Arriel 1D1 Turbomeca turbine making about 732hp at the shaft. It runs on Jet A fuel, carries 143 gallons, and burns about 48 gallons per hour, giving Mark and Eliana around 2.5 hours in the air at a time. Stock, the AStar seats six, but with all the news equipment, including camera, gimbal, laptops, radios, and scanners, the KTLA ‘copter has just enough room for me and Jeff to squeeze in with the reporters. Mark says the AStar has a top speed of 135mph, but we start our cruise over I405 at a slow drift to match the traffic below.
Eliana starts calling out collisions as we follow the brake lights over the Sepulveda pass. She mentions an incident at the 101, but tells Mark not to bother, “It’s five minutes old, it’s probably over. Let’s go to the car fire near Santa Monica.”
As Mark circles the rising column of smoke on the shoulder of the freeway, I ask Eliana how they decide what to cover. “Some of it is requests from the traffic department and assignment desk in the studio, and some of it is our instincts based on the scanners. They trust us to find the news,” she answers, maneuvering the remote camera on the nose to give Mark a better view of the emergency vehicles surrounding a smoldering gray compact. “We’re one of the only stations that still sends a crew up just to cruise all throughout the day,” says Mark. “Most only go up for specific calls.” He turns back to the screen and calls into the station to give them the update. Then we make one last pass over the stopped lanes, and head towards downtown Los Angeles.
DTLA rises out of a low-lying fog bank. The glass-sided skyscrapers flame up with reflections of the morning sun, then go nearly invisible mirroring the sky as we change angles around them. We follow the radio to a jackknifed big rig blocking lanes on the 710 Southbound. Another news channel helicopter swings low underneath us and Mark makes a huffing noise. “Are you guys enemies?” I ask. “We’re competitive,” says Mark. “We’re aggressive. We want to be able to say, ‘First overhead on scene.’”
“Not enemies,” adds Eliana. “More like, we’re not friends.”
The semi truck is off to the side, so Mark heads east towards City of Industry where there is a report of a hit-and-run. It’s just happened, and there’s no information available other than what the chopper team can discern through the zoom lens. “There’s a school right there, think it’s a kid?” Mark asks Eliana. “Could be,” she answers, then points to an object in the intersection. “That’s a skateboard. It’s definitely a young person.” A few seconds later the on-air folks check in with Mark and he’s able to tell them that a young man, possibly a student was hit in the intersection, but has walked to the emergency vehicle, and will probably be ok. All the reporters, both ground and air, seem relieved. “We see a lot of bad things,” says Eliana, “but there’s something about a kid.”
As rush hour winds down, Mark apologizes. “I’m sorry we didn’t a get a chase for you,” he says, and I laugh and offer to call someone on the ground with a request to start one. The ‘copter makes a wide lazy circle up over Pasadena and the reporters tell me some of their greatest hits and misses. “Michael Jackson’s funeral was probably the most insane thing we ever shot, from a flying standpoint,” says Mark. “There were 20 something helicopters, every small plane in the city had been rented. It was madness in the air.”
“We almost got arrested for showing too much of the Christopher Dorner standoff,” says Eliana. “We try to respect the police and fire teams,” says Mark, “but in that case they felt we were showing too much of their tactical plan.”
Eliana starts laughing. “Remember the motorcycle pursuit where the guy ran in the house, changed clothes and came out disguised as an old man like he wasn’t the guy? He totally fooled us. He fooled everybody.”
Mark turns back towards Sun Valley, making sure to point out the fake plane crash at Universal Studios and oddly shaped swimming pools in the fancy backyards high in the Hollywood Hills. We geek out trying to identify various muscle cars from above, and Eliana humors us by moving the camera so we can get a better look at a large hoard of vintage Pontiacs in a storage lot. We touch down softly at Whiteman airport and say our farewells. I leave them settling back in by the scanners in case of a mid-day motorcycle chase. “Drive safe,” says Mark as I head out. “We’ll be up there, keeping an eye out for you.” He wasn’t kidding either; a few weeks later the morning news covered a sports car crash in the rain. Nobody hurt, just a stuffed Viper in a tree. Mark’s voice came on over the sound of rotor noise. “Sky5, first overhead, I bet Elana from HOT ROD knows that guy.”