In Los Angeles, a City of Helicopters, Kobe Bryant Was a Frequent Flier

LOS ANGELES — For celebrities and the rich of Los Angeles, the helicopters that constantly whir above the city are a glitzy status symbol. In some neighborhoods, they are a menacing symbol of police surveillance. For almost everyone, including the conductor who once walked offstage during Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 when a helicopter buzzed above the Hollywood Bowl, they can be a hated nuisance.

That the basketball icon Kobe Bryant’s brilliant and complicated life came to an end in a fiery crash on a hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains on Sunday seemed to only underscore the ubiquity of the helicopter in this sprawling and traffic-choked metropolis.

“Traffic started getting really, really bad,” he once explained. “I wound up missing like a school play because I was sitting in traffic, and these things just kept mounting. And I had to figure out a way where I could still train and focus on the craft but still not compromise family time. And so that’s when I looked into helicopters, and to be able to get down and back in 15 minutes.”

Back in his playing days, Mr. Bryant, 41, had a routine. Wake up in Orange County, hop a helicopter to downtown Los Angeles, work out, shoot baskets, then get home in time to pick his daughters up from school. And then it was back to the arena to suit up for that night’s Lakers game.

Mr. Bryant, of course, was not the only celebrity in this city filled with them to embrace the helicopter as a preferred mode of transportation. Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford fly their own choppers, and Brad Pitt and Madonna are also known to zoom around the city by helicopter. Private, taxi-like services like Blade have prospered, allowing the merely wealthy, not just the ultrawealthy, to loft above it all.

At other tragic turns in the modern history of Los Angeles, there too was a helicopter. In 1994, a news helicopter tracked the slow-moving white Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson, showcasing the city’s fascination with freeway police chases, a phenomenon that has only heightened in the age of social media. Two years earlier, helicopters showed the nation, and the world, a city on fire during the riots after the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King.

In some cities, the whirling of a helicopter overhead can provoke dread — an indication that an emergency is unfolding. In Los Angeles, helicopters are a buzzing soundtrack to city life: news crews charting traffic backups or the crowds on the beach; firefighters moving in on a fast-moving brush fire; the police surveilling a crime scene or pursuing a suspect; or a wealthy tycoon on the way to an important meeting.

ImageIn Los Angeles, helicopters are a buzzing soundtrack to city life.
Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

The ability to rise above some of the worst traffic in the country has become not just a status symbol but a necessity “for a certain class of wealthy Angeleno who use helicopters to escape the tyranny of the 405 freeway and the downtown gridlock,” said D.J. Waldie, a Los Angeles native who has written about the city’s helicopters and is best known for “Holy Land,” his memoir of suburbia.

“As a consequence of that,” he said, “you have considerable concern on the part of the rest of us about how wealth and privilege have provided a means for escaping some of the everyday realities of life in Los Angeles, making the richest and most famous among us even more remote from our everyday lives.”

In the neighborhoods of South Los Angeles that are distant from the glamour of Newport Beach, where Mr. Bryant lived, the sound of the helicopter is sometimes a sinister reminder of the Los Angeles Police Department’s history of abuses in those communities.

Patrol helicopters from the department’s Air Division — the largest police helicopter fleet in the country — assist officers on the ground, blaring spotlights down streets and into backyards to search for suspects at night.

Hip-hop artists from Tupac Shakur to Kendrick Lamar have decried in their lyrics the circling “ghetto birds” that are ubiquitous in parts of Los Angeles. “Why oh why must you swoop through the hood / Like everybody from the hood is up to no good?” Ice Cube asks in “Ghetto Bird,” released in 1993.

“Every homie has had a helicopter experience,” the Rev. Gregory Boyle, who runs Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit group that helps former gang members escape the street life, wrote in a text message.

José Richard Avilés, who works for the city’s Department of Transportation, said he did not realize that a constant stream of helicopters was uncommon until he attended college in Minnesota.

“Growing up it was always a part of the day-to-day,” he said. “Even now it’s part of the white noise of the city I relate to.”

For local television news stations, helicopters are a necessity to do the job, whether following a police chase or doing traffic reports.

The air above Brentwood was abuzz on Wednesday as a stream of helicopters — mainly from the Fire Department, but also from TV news stations — circled a burning 25-story building.

“Sometimes the chopper will get up in the air on one story and end up chasing five other stories while we’re up there,” said Pete Wilgoren, the managing editor of the Fox 11 television station. “We cover a market that is 100 miles to the east and many miles to the north and south. Choppers for us here in Los Angeles are essential for news gathering.”

When Zoey Tur began flying her helicopter around Los Angeles in the late 1970s, live coverage from the air was hardly a staple of television news. But Ms. Tur, a pilot and reporter, was also a pioneer, capturing searing images of the beating of Reginald Denny, a truck driver, during the riots in 1992. And she was hovering overhead in 1994 during the O.J. Simpson chase that riveted millions of viewers. (Los Angeles magazine reported that the first live police chase shown on local news was in 1992, when a rerun of the legal show “Matlock” was interrupted to show the police chasing a red Volkswagen.)

During one police chase, Ms. Tur recalled, more than a dozen helicopters seemed to be hovering at once, “like something out of ‘Apocalypse Now,’” she said.

Mr. Bryant’s last flight on Sunday took him from Orange County north to Burbank and across to Calabasas, where the helicopter went down amid thick fog.

On Tuesday, a New York Times reporter retraced much of the route of the flight, taking off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, a journey that offered the sort of sweeping views of greater Los Angeles that can be so compelling to television viewers.

The city from the air is a panorama of big-box stores and ranch houses, glinting with turquoise pools and bristling with palms and Italian cypress trees. A bird’s-eye view of the city takes in schools and golf courses, dry riverbeds and warrens of self storage spaces.

The airspace above the city is a bustling place all its own, with helicopters at John Wayne veering away from the flight path of departing passenger jets, small planes towing advertising banners down the coast and air traffic controllers issuing clipped instructions to keep everyone in their aerial lanes.

“It’s just a very dynamic place,” said Chuck Street, executive director of the Los Angeles Helicopter Operators Association, who logged more than 25,000 hours in the air for local radio and television stations before retiring.

Reporting from 1,000 feet in the air, he said, enabled him to create an audible tapestry of the dense, diverse, rapidly changing city his listeners were navigating below.

“You would fly over Monterey Park and you’d see people in the parks doing tai chi, just moving in slow motion,” he said. “Sometimes you would get these scents. I flew over a golf course, and you could smell the strong scent of freshly cut grass. Then you would get, say, another mile further and then you would fly over a restaurant, a Denny’s, and you would get the smell of bacon that was cooking.”

In a metropolitan area of well over 13 million people, spread over a vast landscape from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the helicopter view of Los Angeles, some suggest, is a uniquely manageable way of looking at the city.

“Whether you are in one or if you are just vicariously looking at footage from one, there’s something a little patient about them,” said David Kipen, a Los Angeles writer and teacher who last year published “Dear Los Angeles: the City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018.”

“And I guess if they give you the illusion at least of being able to comprehend and embrace the whole city at once, or at least get a little perspective on the place,” he said, “then maybe we have a little more secret affection for them than we do for the automobile or the airplane.”

Mr. Kipen’s book contains a letter by Christopher Isherwood, the novelist and playwright, describing a helicopter ride he took in 1962 with the writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley. “The ease and abruptness of the ascent is like flying in dreams,” he wrote. The city below, he wrote, “was shocking in its uniformity; all those roofs and little yards and bug-autos and occasional glittering green pools, so much of it, stretching away and away, you never saw the end of it.”

It was a view of Los Angeles that Mr. Bryant had frequently, and it was his last.

In 2010, a writer for GQ accompanied Mr. Bryant on his helicopter, and described the moments after liftoff:

“Bryant squints into the lowering sun, then looks down at all the teeming life below, the sprawling, striving, smog-shouldered city of Los Angeles. His city. From up here he could palm it like a basketball.”

Tim Arango, Dave Philipps and Louis Keene reported from Los Angeles, and Julie Bosman from Chicago.

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