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John McElhinney, 77; Pilot Left LAPD for Radio Career

March 17, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

John McElhinney, a pioneering police helicopter pilot who became a KMPC radio stalwart, has died. He was 77.

McElhinney died Thursday at his Bakersfield home of lung cancer and heart disease.

The whirlybird jockey capped his eclectic career in the late 1980s when he was a part of the early morning drive-time show at KMPC with Robert W. Morgan and Marv Howard.

The show, which included music, news, traffic and sports, suited McElhinney's down-home style. He was particularly liked for his annual Christmas season telling of the story "The Little Red Sled."

Born in Oakville, Iowa, "Big John" grew up in Southern California and served in the military toward the end of World War II. After his discharge in 1946, he was pumping gas when two regular customers who were Los Angeles Police Department officers urged him to take the police entry exam.

McElhinney spent 20 years in the LAPD helicopter unit, which he rose to head. He was credited with greatly expanding the unit and making the airborne "eyes in the sky" a flexible tool for crime investigation and enforcement.

He followed that with five years as expert pilot, consultant and general manager for Bell Helicopter's Van Nuys Center.

In 1973, McElhinney joined Gene Autry's KMPC-AM (710) "Station of the Stars" as part of its airwatch traffic department. From his movable view in the sky, he covered not only traffic but fires, floods, earthquakes and breaking news.

"It's one of those jobs you do that you enjoy tremendously." McElhinney told The Times in 1987. "But at times, it has its seconds of sheer terror. I had a mechanical problem one time over the Hollywood Bowl and made a forced landing in the Universal Studios parking lot."

McElhinney left KMPC in 1982, following open heart surgery. On his final day in the air, peers from the LAPD, California Highway Patrol and other radio and television stations gave him an aerial salute.

"I ran away to Salem, Oregon," McElhinney told Don Barrett for the anthology "Los Angeles Radio People." "I knew my flying career was over, and I was feeling sorry for myself. I needed an escape vehicle."

He worked in radio and as a television weatherman in Oregon, but returned to Los Angeles and KMPC in 1987 for five more years on morning radio.

"For a while, Marv [Howard] and I did a one-hour show together each morning before Robert [Morgan] started his shift," McElhinney told Barrett, adding that those years were the happiest of his career.

McElhinney is survived by his wife, Doris; two sons, John and David, and four grandchildren.

A memorial is planned for Saturday at Eternal Valley Memorial Park in Newhall.

The family has asked that, instead of flowers, memorial donations be made to a charity of the donor's choice.

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