Like a bubble on an evening breeze, the helicopter skimmed north over the Santa Monica Mountains, guided by the emerald topography of Mandeville Canyon. Over hilltop mansions and parkland it flew, insulated from the rhythms of the world below, where the scatting terrain flattened suddenly, almost without warning, into a monotone. The San Fernando Valley.
Traffic was light. The two radio reporters aboard had little material to work with. What can you say about a sparse Monday rush hour except be thankful it's not last Friday when a freeway was shut down and the news was happening as fast as the bullets were flying?
We were over North Hollywood now.
The helicopter banked sharply and circled down.
"There it is," said Scott Forrest, broadcasting traffic reports every 10 minutes to radio station KABC-AM (790) from the chopper's back seat. "Bank of America."
And there it was--the squat building, the spacious parking lot, the television view. From the air, you could actually see the lighter blotches where the bullet holes had been plastered over and repainted. You could, in fact, observe the painters packing up for the day.
Chuck Street, pilot and owner of the Bell Jet Ranger, had missed Friday's shootout. The morning's mayhem had begun just as he had touched down in Fullerton, where his chopper is based, having concluded an uneventful morning of rush-hour reporting for radio station KIIS-FM (102.7).
Had he been airborne, Street surely would have made a beeline back to North Hollywood when the news broke. On the other hand, there had been reports of the bandits firing on news helicopters hovering over the scene. This brought to Street's mind the events of the spring of '92, when pilots were warned away from certain parts of the city because rioters were firing assault weapons into the sky.
And who wants to relive that particular urban nightmare?
For those of us who were not there in person, images of Friday's B of A robbery--the terrorizing of the neighborhood, the televised death of one of the bad guys--will be recalled from the perspective of the helicopters.
The urban nightmare and the media helicopter now go together like, well, smoke and fire. Where there is one, the other surely follows. The helicopter, an indispensable fact of modern news gathering, is the angle from which we very often define "reality."
What were the riots?
Reginald Denny, being pulled from his truck at Florence and Normandie, the event unfolding from the perspective of the news chopper on the scene. (And, then, Denny being saved by people who saw on their televisions what was happening to him.)
A slow-speed chase across two counties led by a white Bronco?
No crowds would have gathered on freeway overpasses without those 19 media helicopters in cool pursuit.
What of our plagues--our floods, our fires, our mudslides, our earthquakes? Don't they, too, often live in our memories in the form of pictures and words brought to us by the hordes of helicopters?
And, of course, the high-speed car chase, which used to be considered news based on how it ended and who was involved, has become newsworthy in and of itself, capable of interrupting local programming, because live coverage from the air gives an irresistible element of suspense.
I can no longer imagine a major outdoor news event without helicopter coverage. Whether, on the whole, this is an advance for civilization or a setback is a question to be solved by philosophers and news directors.
I expected to be disoriented in the air, unable to locate myself as we flew along the freeways, east on the 101 from Woodland Hills, across the Cahuenga Pass, past downtown L.A., east on the 10 through Alhambra and then on into Azusa, El Monte, Fullerton, Anaheim and back along the 5 into Los Angeles. (There is, simply, no more heavenly way to traverse the region than at 120 mph, 1,000 feet up, unfettered by the usual gravity-bound bozos who can ruin a commute.)
How can you pick out buildings and byways when you are used to seeing them from only one perspective, at ground level? Would I recognize the stretches of road we have come to think of as having distinct personalities, thanks to the repetition of radio traffic reports? Would I know my Orange Crush from my El Toro Y? Would the South Bay Curve announce itself or need an introduction?
As it turns out, these things are like Disneyland, quite apparent from the air. So, too, was the elegant stone house in Brentwood. Who could miss it? After all, you've seen it a thousand times before from just this vantage point.
You get something else from the air besides up-to-the-minute traffic reports and indelible images of dramatic events. From the air, because you cover so much turf so quickly, you also get a compressed sense of this sprawling place, a physical feeling of community that is absent from any other perspective. What you feel is that, like drivers in rush hour traffic, we're all in this together.
* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Wednesdays.