Breaking news

The invention of the news helicopter

From What Goes Up by Jack Hitt

Extracted from Epic Magazine
All photos courtesy of Jerry Foster, via Epic Magazine, unless noted otherwise.

At least since that swarm of choppers followed OJ Simpson along LA’s freeway system in the most un-Hollywood chase scene since, well… ever, we’ve kind of taken live helicopter news coverage for granted. But, like everything, airborne ‘action news’ had to be invented by someone, sometime.

That ‘someone’ just happened to be a hoosier with the perfect mix of stick-skills and crazy named Jerry Foster. Here’s how he did it.

First on the scene

Homer Lane’s big idea in 1971 was really two insights in one. The skinny general manager at KOOL-TV Channel 10 in Phoenix figured his reporters could beat the competition to a story if they rode in a helicopter. And Lane – a penny-pinching executive who looked out at the world from behind an uncertain moustache – figured the pilot could also do a few traffic reports along the way.

Lane had heard about the freelance pilot across town because Jerry Foster was featured in a radio report, ‘Death in the Desert’, that told the story of a grandmother and kids who had died in the desert near Carefree, AZ. Lane called him and offered him a job to fly for KOOL. The career of Jerry Foster, helicopter newsman, was ready for takeoff.

A nice study of another McCulloch J-2, one of about 80 the chainsaw-maker built. The diminutive gyro would have set Homer Lane back about $15,000. (NASA)

The station bought Foster a cheap gyrocopter with a tiny plastic bubble cockpit, a slapdash machine that was manufactured by McCulloch Motors as a sideshow to their main product, chainsaws. Foster called it “the Pollywog” because it looked so funny. He could fly anything, of course, but the problem with calling in traffic reports as he circled above Phoenix and its clogged thoroughfares was the thudding concussion of the engine and rotors, which made his report impossible to hear.

‘This is Jerry Foster’

This idea of doing traffic reports for television was shaping up to be a fiasco. But Foster wanted this job. [His young wife] Dianna was pregnant, and he needed stability.

Foster’s daring solution was to soar in altitude just before broadcast time, then disengage the engine (the way you might put a car in neutral) and watch the Pollywog go into a glide, an arcing fall that gave him about 30 seconds of silence to voice his traffic report—while hurtling toward earth!—before re-engaging the engine and pulling up at the last second.

More than once he misjudged the length of his report, and as he was about to slam into the roofs of speeding cars he’d suddenly cry out, “This is Jerry Foster, gotta go!”

A vidcap of KOOL’s original McCulloch J2 – Foster’s ‘Pollywog’ – flying over Phoenix. (Courtesy Barry Neumeister | Epic Magazine)

A hick with a toy

Foster’s death-defying dedication to getting out the daily traffic impressed Lane, and Foster became a part of the KOOL newsroom, where the workaday journalists seemed amused by him, and not much else. They were professionals, and Foster was a hick with a toy, reporting on traffic with his uncouth vernacular, unselfconsciously saying “ain’t” and “irregardless” and once wishing all Jewish viewers “a happy Cha-NOO-kah.”

He couldn’t keep subjects and verb tenses straight and drove many viewers crazy with his limited vocabulary. “His use of the adjective ‘incredible’ is sickening,” John Ferry wrote in one of dozens of letters of complaint to the Arizona Republic. “He used it five times in one broadcast recently. It’s probably the only adjective he knows.”

The TV station’s staff called him Barney Fife behind his back, but a lot of viewers liked his corny jokes. “It’s a beautiful day,” he’d say, “110 degrees.”

It wasn’t easy

No one really paid attention when Foster arranged to take a spare camera up with him in the Pollywog. His traffic broadcasts had been audio only, but Foster understood that TV was a visual medium, and he wanted to bring back footage that could go on the air.

It wasn’t easy to operate the wind-up Bolex camera while flying a helicopter, but after a few tries Foster got results that Lane could use for regular broadcasts.

To make his shots timely, Foster would remove the film, pop it into a canister, and descend to a watermelon field near the TV studio, where he’d manoeuvre around some power lines and then toss the canister out the door. A cameraman would retrieve the film from the melon patch and develop it for broadcast by the time Jerry was reporting the traffic news in the serene silence of a freefall.

Any landing you walk away from…

After Foster destroyed the Pollywog – in a mishap caused by one of his film canisters accidentally flying into the pimped-out chainsaw’s wooden blades – KOOL-TV spent a bit more money on a replacement, a nice little Hughes that Lane painted in red, white, and blue. Foster was getting very familiar with the old pilots’ adage that “any landing you walk away from is a good landing,” but he was excited to get a newer chopper.

Before long, Foster was edging his way from straight traffic reporting to covering the news. One day, a tanker overturned on the highway. The cops were there pronto, and reporters from the newspapers and TV stations were having trouble getting to the scene.

Foster, hovering above the accident, called in directions to his KOOL-TV colleagues for a shortcut so that they would beat the competition.

When they arrived, they interviewed officials and recorded their usual stand-ups from the scene. But when the story aired that night, “Flames, Smoke, and Mayhem” led with the footage Foster had shot from the air.

For the program director, it was obvious which perspective made for better TV. Getting the details right from officials on the ground was fine, but Jerry could see the whole catastrophe from on high in near real-time.

A kind of addiction

Being first to the scene of any disaster, rescue, fire, or car chase made KOOL the number one station in town.

The loves of his life… Jerry Foster, one of his two daughters, and ‘his’ helicopter. (Courtesy Jerry Foster | Epic Magazine)

The thrill of always being first on the scene, with a camera, became an obsession for Foster, almost a kind of addiction. He kept a phone and a two-way radio on him at all times. If a call about a juicy story came in from the highway patrol during dinner, Foster was out the door, leaving his (now two) daughters, wife, and half-eaten meal behind.

Dianna Foster spent a lot of her day frustrated and irritated. She would give Jerry a few chores to help out around the house. But the sinks continued to drip and the doors wobbled on their hinges because there just wasn’t a whole lot of time to fix those things when the radio crackled.

The sheriff’s office even gave his helicopter an official-sounding cop handle. ‘Lincoln 30’ meant the KOOL guy with the camera was near the scene and offering to help.

Backwoods pilot grunge

Foster still didn’t fit in with the newsroom professionals, who didn’t appreciate that a guy with a 10th-grade education was suddenly stealing their limelight.

He tended to stay away from his colleagues but couldn’t always restrain the brawler in him. He got into a few shouting matches with the other journalists. Things were especially tense with the anchor, Bill Close, who once yelled at Foster for coming onto the set for a live report without a coat and tie. Close was annoyed that Foster’s backwoods pilot grunge had earned him a decent Q-score and on-air appeal.

But the reality was that Foster was a good newsman. And he was good at what was going to become the dominant mode of local news.

Something else

Foster was helping to invent that style of journalism. Like the time all the local stations broke in with the news that a dozen Mexicans crossing the border were staggering through the desert, thirsty, lost, and in grave danger.

The conventional way to handle such an assignment would be to send a news van to find the cops and tell the story of the operation on the ground, conducting searches and saving lives. But Foster got a call from KOOL, enlisted a friend to come along, and flew straight to the desert, where he quickly spotted his first man.

He radioed the police and dropped to the ground as his friend leaped from the chopper with a canteen of water, an iconic moment that Foster instinctively captured on camera for the evening broadcast: a man dying of thirst taking his first grateful chugs. It was a scene that had been shown in a thousand movies, a cowboy on horseback saving the day. But this was the real thing.

The guys in wide ties back in the office were reporting news. Jerry Foster was doing something else…

Read the rest

In fact, Foster was just getting started. His shooting-star rise-turned-morality-play would make him an Arizona legend – and more than qualify him as an aviation legend too.

If you’d like to read the full tale of how Foster went from penniless, fatherless mining camp brat to ‘King of the Wild Blue Sky’ – and you know you do – you’ll find the whole extraordinary true story at Epic Magazine, online and free. Just click here.

Thanks to author Jack Hitt and Epic Editor Harry Spitzer for bringing their great story to my attention, and for sharing this extract with airscape.

6 thoughts on “Breaking news

  1. I’m always struck by how risky and rickety the machines and methods of aviation pioneers are. The Wrights 1903, Jimmy Doolittle’s first instrument flight in 1929, the FW 61 helicopter in 1936 — they flew without any of the safety features, backups, or training we just take for granted today. What they all seem to have in common is a sense of adventure, the ability to take risk, and the creative genius to get the job done, however inelegant their solution might be.

    Oh — and of course, the ability to make a fantastic and inspirational story for future generations. Looking at it from today’s perspective, that might be their most enduring legacy…

    1. That’s an interesting spread of private, corporate and government backed projects you’ve mentioned – but putting everything on the line for the advancement of aviation certainly links them all.
      There’s a special joy that comes from working without a net (and getting away with it) when the stakes are absolute. (Something I discovered free climbing, when I was young enough not to think too much about it.) I think adventure might be getting severely undervalued, or at least the real value is being kept from us.
      Jerry Foster may have been advancing KOOL-TV’s profits rather than aviation, but he certainly ticks all the boxes otherwise. He probably flew on the last real ‘wild frontier’ of aviation, before the FAA caught up with him and the sector he spawned. A lot of those chopper pilots had honed their skills in Vietnam, and prized the laws of physics and survival above the FARs.

  2. What a great story. One could never start out flying like Foster did nowadays and cap it off with just 8 hours on a chopper. Like Sully Sullenberger when he learned to fly.

    1. I know! It doesn’t feel that long ago and yet… I guess 40 years is a long time in aviation. Makes me wonder how today will look from 2050’s perspective.

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