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The Boston Globe

Obituaries

John Silva, 92; prepared first TV news copter

John Silva with actor Gregory Peck in the KTLA Telecopter used for an opening sequence of “The Big Country” in 1958.

Eddie Hoff/New York Times

John Silva with actor Gregory Peck in the KTLA Telecopter used for an opening sequence of “The Big Country” in 1958.

NEW YORK — Helicopter news footage is common today. But until myriad problems in sending live pictures from a moving aircraft were solved, television broadcasters could not show an eagle’s-eye view of a forest fire or contemplate aerial coverage of, say, a famous man fleeing the police in a white Ford Bronco.

John Silva made that familiar vantage possible in 1958, when he converted a small helicopter into the first airborne virtual television studio.

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The KTLA Telecopter, as it was called by the Los Angeles station where Mr. Silva was the chief engineer, became the basic tool of live television traffic reporting, disaster coverage, and that most famous glued-to-the-tube moment in the modern era of celebrity-gawking, the 1994 broadcast of O.J. Simpson leading a motorcade of pursuers on Los Angeles freeways after his former wife and a friend of hers were killed.

Mr. Silva, 92, who earned two Emmy Awards for his pioneering technical work, died in Camarillo, Calif., on Nov. 27. His death was confirmed by a spokesman for KTLA-TV, where he worked from 1946 until leaving to become an electronics design consultant in 1978.

An electronics engineer trained in radar science during World War II, Mr. Silva faced three roadblocks to transmitting images live from helicopters. Rotor vibrations distorted the pictures, and sometimes even cracked the transmitter’s vacuum tubes. Directional antennas went haywire when helicopters changed direction suddenly. And the camera equipment weighed a ton.

With help from fellow KTLA engineers, though mainly working alone to keep the project secret from competitors, Mr. Silva stabilized onboard cameras with a system of shock absorbers and cushions, designed aluminum parts to replace heavier metals in his equipment, and commissioned an anten­na that would extend below the chopper and rotate to maintain uninterrupted contact with ­KTLA’s mountaintop transmitter. By paring and remachining, he reduced the weight of the broadcast equipment to 368 pounds from 2,000 pounds and distributed the load with precise symmetry throughout the tiny Bell 47G2 chopper leased for the project.

KTLA, the first commercially licensed television station west of the Rockies, faced growing competition in the late 1950s. New network-affiliated stations were scoring scoops with mobile broadcast units like ones Mr. Silva had pioneered, and everyone was fighting to get through increasingly clogged Los Angeles freeways.

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The Telecopter was intended to kill the competition.

‘‘If we could build a news mobile unit in a helicopter,’’ Mr. Silva recalled in a 2002 interview for the Archive of American Television, ‘‘we could get over it all, get there first, avoid the traffic, and get to all the stories before anybody.’’

By the time he began work on his airborne live television unit, Mr. Silva had already achieved a landmark in ground-level television history. In 1949, when he was technical director at KTLA, he rigged the electronic connections, using duct-tape ingenuity and a borrowed generator, that carried what historians consider the first live television broadcast of a breaking news event: the 27-hour rescue operation in San Marino, Calif., to save Kathy Fiscus, a 3-year-old trapped in an abandoned water pipe 94 feet below ground. The rescue was unsuccessful, but the station’s coverage was the precursor to every wall-to-wall television event broadcast since.

The Telecopter’s first flight took place at Los Angeles City Hall on July 24, 1958. It reestablished ­KTLA’s dominance (until competitors put their own helicopters up). And for better and worse, it brought a Hollywood-style excitement.

In the archive interview, Mr. Silva was asked what the first live helicopter pictures showed. They were panning shots, he said, zooming in and out of the Los Angeles landscape between the station’s Sunset Boulevard studio and City Hall.

Most of what they showed, he added, ‘‘was the freeway.’’

John Daniel Silva was born in San Diego. He attended MIT for two years and then attended ­Stanford University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree.

During World War II, he was a naval officer who positioned radar defenses in the Pacific.

After the war, he worked for Paramount Pictures as an engineer for an experimental television station, W6XYZ, that later became KTLA.

Mr Silva leaves his wife, Mary Lou Steinkraus-Silva; three daughters; and a granddaughter.

The Telecopter had its greatest moments, predictably, at news events of Cecil B. DeMille dimensions: the 1963 dam break at the Baldwin Hills Reservoir in Los Angeles that sent 250 million gallons of ­water into surrounding neighborhoods, destroying many homes, and taking five lives; the 1965 Watts riots; the 1961 brush fire that swept through Bel Air, sending Hollywood stars scrambling to their roofs with garden hoses.

In his three-hour interview with the television archive, Mr. Silva never mentioned the 1994 O.J. Simpson freeway pursuit footage he made possible. But in talking about the future of helicopter reporting, he made clear that he had no regrets about the Telecopter’s role in creating an increas­ingly graphic television sensibility.

He would just like the lenses to get longer and the close-ups tighter, he said.

“When they’re doing freeway chases, they need to have a system that can come down in front, and be able to get pictures of suspects in the front windshield,’’ he said, describing improvement he hoped to see.

Smiling, he added, ‘‘To fill the screen with their wonderful faces.’’

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