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Have chopper, will report

Jul 16, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Larry Welk III, the chief pilot/reporter at KCAL-TV, is convinced he has the “best job” in Los Angeles-and every chance he gets he makes sure his boss knows it.
“I tell Don all the time, `Thank you for giving me the best job in L.A.,’ and he thinks I’m sucking up,” Mr. Welk said, referring to his boss, KCAL General Manager Don Corsini.
KCAL is the only station in Los Angeles that owns a helicopter, having bought the Eurocopter A-Star about three years ago. In almost every evening newscast on KCAL, viewers will see a breaking news story being delivered by the chopper.
“If you look at our newscast or any newscast in any major market, helicopter coverage is an absolute necessity. It’s because of the size of the DMA,” Mr. Corsini said. “When breaking news occurs, of course we cover it from the sky.”
Mr. Welk, the grandson of late entertainer Lawrence Welk, is one of only a few people in the market who both fly the chopper and report. Mr. Welk said he loves to fly and is a self-professed news junkie, always listening to scanners. KCAL invited Electronic Media to experience a day in the life of an L.A. chopper pilot and get a rare bird’s-eye view of the market from its Sky 9 chopper.
Mr. Welk’s Burbank, Calif. office, which is next to the helicopter hangar, is decorated with a little silver clock in the shape of a chopper that sits next to his local 1999 Emmy for live coverage. There are two framed clippings of newspaper stories on his efforts in March 2000, when on the night of Academy Awards coverage he escorted a KTTV, Los Angeles, pilot back to a Van Nuys, Calif. hangar, after her chopper experienced hydraulic failure. Mr. Welk also received an award from the Los Angeles City Council for selflessness and heroism in aiding the fellow chopper pilot. This year Mr. Welk was chosen as Pilot of the Year by the National Broadcast Pilots Association.
Mr. Welk says there is a close-knit community of pilots in Los Angeles, and though they are all competitive, safety is their top priority. The pilots hold annual safety meetings.
“It’s not just the brotherhood of media pilots, the helicopter community is so small in general,” Mr. Welk said. “At any given time, you could have as many as 15 helicopters over one story. There’s a frequency that’s dedicated to just the chopper pilots on the aircraft radio.”
On the day Electronic Media went along for a ride, Mr. Welk was called to cover a 300-acre brushfire in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Climbing into the chopper with KCAL photographer Gil Leyvas, whose full-time assignment is chopper duty with Mr. Welk, who refers to their partnership as “Batman and Robin.” Mr. Leyvas added, “It’s like Starsky and Hutch.”
Mr. Leyvas, who is one of the few video photographers in the market to also carry a still camera, controls the Flir Ultra Media III digital video camera, which is hooked onto the nose of the chopper. The camera is gyro-stabilized so the picture is not shaky.
As a common safety measure, all the pilots at the scene of the fire maintained regular communication to inform each other where they would be maneuvering.
While sitting in the chopper over the scene, there are always several channels of information piped into the headsets from scanners, other pilots talking, and the assignment desk.
The brushfire, from which smoke rose 2,000 feet high, was dangerously close to a residential community and became the lead item on KCAL’s 3:30 p.m. news. Mr. Welk sent two more live shots from the scene in that same newscast. Much of his time is spent hovering, waiting for a cue from the assignment desk. When he’s done, he flies back to the Burbank hangar. Before heading back, Sky 9 hugs Pacific Coast Highway for a view of the homes few people ever get to see.
He and Mr. Leyvas saw what they thought was a sheriff’s deputy with his gun drawn on someone at the side of PCH, but they later found out their perception of the incident had been off. Many times the two will find stories by just scanning the area from the chopper. If they think they’ve found something newsworthy, they clear it through the assignment desk.
Since the KCAL chopper is flying pretty low over Pacific Coast Highway on this day, Mr. Welk’s father Larry Welk Jr., who is sitting in traffic on the congested highway, notices the chopper and calls his son’s cell phone. Coincidentally, it was the first time in his six years as a pilot for KCAL that Mr. Welk’s father was at the same place when his son was flying over head.

He asked his son why there was a backup on the highway. Mr. Welk tells his dad that traffic lightens up past the upcoming intersection and that the brief congestion was probably due to a signal that was broken. The two waved to each other, and the younger Mr. Welks said with a smile, “We just gave him a personalized traffic report.”
The great part about this job is you never know where we’re going to fly,” Mr. Welk said. “We’ve had pursuits that have taken us to the Mexican border, and Cambria [Calif.] for a flood.”
Four hours later, Mr. Welk was back at the same brushfire for the 8 p.m. news. He did a second live shot off the coast of Playa del Rey, Calif., where there was a report of a chopper going down, which later proved to be a false alarm. At 9 p.m. Mr. Welk had two live shots from Playa del Rey, and during the 10 p.m. newscast he did two live reports from West Hollywood, Calif., where a police officer on a bicycle was hit a car.
“There are a few rare days we don’t fly, but the majority of time we do go up,” Mr. Welk said. “We only go up when there’s something newsworthy going on, but every night there is something newsworthy going on.”
While some argue car chases are not newsworthy, KCAL believes many are important enough to show viewers. On June 20, coverage of a chase that lasted 11 hours began on KCAL’s afternoon newscast and ended on its 8 p.m. news, though a standoff between the driver and the police continued into the night. It gave the station higher ratings than any network programming that night, averaging a 17.8 Nielsen Media Research rating and 28 share for that day’s 8 p.m. news, peaking at 8:15 p.m. with an 18.9/31. It was the day after Mr. Welk underwent nasal surgery, so he missed it.
Mr. Welk says the reason he enjoys flying over a car chase, is “it really is an action-packed story, it’s a fluid situation. You don’t know what the outcome is.”
Critics say such chases encourage people to flee, knowing they might get airtime on the news, Mr. Welk said. “Nintey-eight percent of the time, they’re taken into custody. That should be a deterrent. And what better way of showing it than being on TV?”
“If you’re watching TV and you’re sitting in your living room and you hear helicopters and police sirens outside, wouldn’t you love to see it on TV so you know what’s happening?” Mr. Welk said. “And if you hear a suspect is armed and dangerous on TV, you know to get up and lock your door. Local news is to inform the citizens the events that are happening in your community.”
Said Mr. Welk, “What TV does best is to be able to show events as they happen, and by far, the quickest and most efficient way to get to a news story that is breaking is by air. Plus, it’s a great promotional vehicle for the station. If you see a fire and you see a chopper above it and it says `9,’ you’ll turn to Channel 9.”