John D. Silva, force behind first news helicopter, dies at 92

December 7, 2012

John D. Silva was the chief engineer for KTLA-TV in Los Angeles in 1958 when he outfitted a helicopter with a TV camera and changed television news coverage forever.

He turned a rented Bell helicopter into the Telecopter — essentially, a flying TV studio. The first of its kind, it put Mr. Silva’s station at the forefront of live aerial coverage of major news events such as parades, fires, earthquakes and massive freeway snarls.

Hundreds of televised car chases later, Mr. Silva’s invention is a staple of television news, along with the mobile unit he also had a hand in developing.

Mr. Silva, whose two Emmy Awards include one in 1974 for developing the Telecopter, died Nov. 27 in Camarillo, Calif., of complications of pneumonia, his family said. He was 92.

Mr. Silva began creating the aerial broadcast studio in strict secrecy, assembling the news chopper in a North Hollywood backyard so other TV stations wouldn’t catch on.

The challenges were great. First, the engineer had to convince KTLA executives to spend $40,000 on broadcast equipment that no one was certain actually worked — no small feat in 1957. Then he had to whittle down 2,000 pounds of television equipment to just 368 pounds so the Bell 47 helicopter could lift off the ground.

Mr. Silva struggled mightily on the piston-driven helicopter’s July 3, 1958, maiden flight.

Fellow engineers waiting on Mount Wilson radioed that they were not receiving any video images from the helicopter. Mr. Silva knew he would not be able to duplicate the in-flight conditions by trouble-shooting back on the ground. So he asked pilot Larry Scheer to hover at about 1,500 feet as smoothly as he could.

“Larry, I’ve got to go out there,” he told the pilot, adding, “I am not going to look down.”

Mr. Silva climbed out on the right-side skid, clinging with one hand to the copter and using his other hand to unlatch the wooden box containing the microwave transmitter bolted to the outside of the chopper.

When he peered into the box, he could see that one of the transmitter’s vacuum tubes was not glowing. The helicopter’s vibration and the day’s scorching heat had caused it to fail.

Back at the airport, Mr. Silva worked overnight to insulate the box and cushion its contents from the Bell 47’s bone-jarring shake.

The next day, Mr. Silva and Scheer lifted off again. At 12:48 p.m., Mr. Silva aimed his hand-held camera toward Hollywood bungalows. Elated Mount Wilson engineers radioed back, “We’ve got you!”

From that moment on, TV news was never the same.

“The Telecopter became the envy of every news department in the country and it was many years before anyone was able to match it,” veteran KTLA reporter Stan Chambers recalled in his 2008 book, “KTLA’s News at Ten.”

Mr. Silva was born in San Diego on Feb. 20, 1920, to parents involved in the tuna fishing industry. He earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Stanford University. In 1942, he joined the Navy as a radar operator and was aboard the destroyer Shea when Japanese bombers attacked, killing 35 sailors. Mr. Silva was among 91 who were wounded.

After his wartime service, he moved to Los Angeles and joined Paramount Pictures, which was operating an experimental TV station, W6XYZ, the predecessor of KTLA.

Mr. Silva was KTLA’s chief engineer for 21 years. He was director of engineering research from 1976 until 1978, when he retired to become an electronics design consultant.

The KTLA Telecopter was sold to Los Angeles’s KNBC-TV for $350,000 in 1974. (Scheer, the pilot, went with it.) By that time, the Telecopter had won more than 40 local and national awards for KTLA for live coverage of events.

Its history had tragic notes. In 1977, U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, who succeeded Scheer as Telecopter pilot, was killed along with his photographer when the craft ran out of fuel returning from a Santa Barbara brush fire and crashed in Encino. The chopper, a Bell 206 Jet Ranger, was destroyed, but TV news stations kept using telecopters.

“I never thought about being a pioneer,” Mr. Silva told Air & Space magazine in 2009. “All I ever wanted to do was get us there and get the picture — before the competition got it.”

Survivors include his wife, Mary Lou Steinkraus-Silva; three daughters; and a granddaughter.

— Los Angeles Times

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