A short history of the intrusive helicopter

Helicopter's view of Downtown LA  by feculent_fugue/ Flickr/ Creative Commons
Helicopter’s view of Downtown LA by feculent_fugue/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Sometime in the mid-1980s, a former chief pilot of the Lakewood (Calif.) Sheriff’s Station helicopter patrol program informed me of the perversity of helicopters. A plane with wings, he said, naturally wants to fly. It’ll glide if the engine fails. A helicopter doesn’t glide. With the engine off and blades spinning in “autorotation,” a helicopter just goes down.

That might please many irate inhabitants of Los Angeles. Lots of homeowners and a few orchestra conductors (who’ve walked off the Hollywood Bowl stage in protest) are tired of the noisy company of tourist, paparazzo, news, and police helicopters, their jet engines roaring and blades thwacking the night air.

Personal helicopters for everyone were promised in the 1950s, whisking commuters to downtown or taking the family for a joyride to Palm Springs. Instead, the future turned out to be CEOs and Hollywood boldface names coptering to avoid the rest of us gridlocked on the freeways. But it’s a familiar L.A. bait-and-switch: We’re always being pitched a bright future and ending up with a darker, more troublesome one.

The Los Angeles Police Department flies 17 helicopters, and the mascot of the LAPD Air Support Division is a glum-looking vulture perched on a patrol car light bar. The imagery of a circling bird is appropriate. When a police helicopter works a crime scene, it follows a tight orbit, generally at three or four hundred feet for better observation, aided at night by million-candlepower searchlights. The lights, the engine noise, and the staccato of rotor blades biting into the air can feel menacing to anyone on the ground, law-abiding or not.

Police and fire helicopters have saved lives, at least. What haven’t saved lives are media helicopters, tour guide helicopters, and Hollywood helicopters. Given the ire whipped up by commercial flights in the still nights of hillside and canyon neighborhoods, it’s not surprising that bills to regulate commercial helicopters have already been introduced in Congress.

Below: KCRW’s Matt Holzman takes a ride in a helicopter

If the complainers want to pinpoint the moment when the misery began, the early afternoon of July 4, 1958 is the day and time. That’s when the Telecopter made the world’s first broadcast flight. John D. Silva, chief engineer for KTLA, was the inventor. He even risked his life for his invention. During a test flight the day before the first broadcast, when no TV transmissions were coming through from Silva’s helicopter, Silva stepped out onto the helicopter’s skid 1,500 feet over Hollywood to do some repairs. Fifty-five years of car chases, celebrity weddings, disasters, riots, and freeway tie-ups followed.

Helicopters were wonderful things once. Admiring boys like me in 1957 watched Whirlybirds a helicopter adventure series produced by Desilu and syndicated by Viacom. It gave some boys the idea that they could grow up to be dashing helicopter pilots, and many ended up piloting helicopter gunships in Vietnam. Some of them returned from Southeast Asia to fly helicopters over Los Angeles.

One of them was KNBC’s updated version of a Telecopter flown by Francis Gary Powers. He was already famous as the pilot of the U-2 spy plane shot down in 1960 as it passed high over the Russian city of Sverdlovsk. In 1977, when Powers and his cameraman were coming back from covering a brush fire, their helicopter slammed into the Sepulveda Dam Recreational Area, killing both men.

Today, ex-military pilots fly helicopters for tour companies. Zeroing in on the Hollywood sign or the backyard of a pop star for a moneyed tourist is safer than any landing at Bagram Airbase.

I flew a few times in the 1980s in a small helicopter. It was a Hughes Model 300C, with two seats and an engine that looked as if it had come from a lawnmower. When I was up there, but only a few hundred feet up, the city was laid out like a three-dimensional map with toy cars and insignificant figures on foot. I was unencumbered, on a lark, and for a few minutes above it all.

Some of the pedestrians below must have heard me and the pilot clattering overhead, but none of them ever looked up, so accustomed had they become to a helicopter’s intrusion into their earth-bound lives.

D. J. Waldie is a contributing editor of the Los Angeles Times and a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine. His most recent book is “House” in collaboration with Diane Keaton. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.