John Silva: He Invented the TV News Chopper

Next time you turn on a local TV news broadcast and see an aerial view of a police car chase, a traffic jam or a burning building, thank John D. Silva.

Silva, who died on Nov. 27 at age 92 in Camarillo, Calif., didn’t actually invent the helicopter itself. But he was the first, back in the late 1950s, to think of utilizing such an aircraft as an airborne TV studio, a vantage point from which journalists not only could follow events, but also give live reports on what they were seeing.

Silva, the chief engineer for KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles, was a visionary who helped create the modern age of on-location TV news gathering in the early 1950s by designing camera trucks that could roll to the scene of breaking news and broadcast from that spot. But according to a 2009 article in Smithsonian Air & Space magazine, the highly competitive former U.S. Navy radar officer was driving down the congested Hollywood Freeway one morning when he thought of an even better way to rise above the competition. What if he could transmit live pictures from the air? “The logical next step had to be a helicopter,” he recalled.

But pulling it off technically wasn’t so easy.  Silva perused topographic maps and plotted how signals could be transmitted from hundreds of points around Los Angeles County to a receiving dish atop Mount Wilson, 25 miles to the north. The weight and limitations of vacuum tube-era TV cameras, antennas and other gear seemed like a deal-breaker, until Silva redesigned much of it, replacing heavy parts with lightweight aluminum. He acquired a then-novel handheld video camera from General Electric, and got that company’s engineers to design a special miniature microwave antenna. Finally, he got everything down in weight to just under 368 pounds — the upper limit that the  the copter, a Bell47G2, could carry. The first test of the equipment, on July 3, 1958, ended in disappointment when Silva couldn’t get the equipment to transmit a picture, even after he crawled out precariously on one of the copter’s skids to tinker with it.

But the next day, as he pointed the camera at the rooftops of Hollywood’s bungalows, his walkie-talkie suddenly erupted with a voice from the TV station on the ground: “We’ve got you!”

Later that month, KTLA shocked Los Angelenos by interrupting regular broadcasting to show them a picture of the city from 1,000 feet up. In the decade that followed, the KTLA news copter gave viewers a bird’s-eye view of everything from the Rose Bowl parade to the 1965 Watts riot.

Here’s a a segment of an interview that Silva did for the Archive of American Television in 2002 in which he talks about inventing the Telecopter:

YouTube Preview Image

Also, here’s an on-air tribute to Silva, offered by KTLA’s Sam Rubin.