LOS ANGELES – John D. Silva was the chief engineer for KTLA-TV 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 his 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, Silva’s invention is a staple of television news stations, along with the mobile unit he also had a hand in developing.
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.
“John’s legacy is of leading the industry to develop new tools. He actually helped define live television in the infancy of this industry,” said Dave Cox, KTLA’s current chief engineer.
Silva began creating the aerial broadcast studio in strict secrecy, assembling the news chopper in a North Hollywood backyard so other local 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.
On the piston-driven helicopter’s maiden flight July 3, 1958, Silva struggled mightily.
During that test flight, his fellow engineers waiting on Mount Wilson radioed that they were not receiving any video images from the helicopter.
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.”
Silva then 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, Silva worked overnight to insulate the box and cushion its contents from the Bell 47′s bone-jarring shake.
The next day, July 4, 1958, Silva and Scheer lifted off again. At 12:48 p.m., 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.”
Silva was the kind of guy who “didn’t worry about what couldn’t be done,” Chambers observed in the book. “He concentrated on making the impossible happen.”
The intrepid engineer was born in San Diego on Feb. 20, 1920, to parents involved in the tuna fishing industry. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering. In 1942 he joined the Navy as a radar operator and was aboard the destroyer Shea when Japanese bombers attacked, killing 35 sailors. 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. After KTLA signed on as the first commercial station in the West in 1946, Silva became the technical director of such programs as “City at Night” and “The Lawrence Welk Show” and handled remote broadcasts of local events that included the Rose Parade, roller derby contests and baseball games.
Another major contribution of Silva’s was the Telemobile, a station wagon with a large camera and photographer’s seat mounted on the roof.
It also had a microwave dish that was powered by a generator that was towed behind in a trailer. Introduced in the early 1960s, the mobile unit was the forerunner of those used by TV news stations today.