Thursday, March 22, 2012

Let Your Passions Fly You

Downtown Los Angeles from Above by Mike Miller via Flickr
AS THE propellers began to spin, you can see the dust and smog churn through the air outside of the short square window. You are suddenly lifted and as you move higher and higher, the City of Angels surrounds you until you are far above it and the circular platform looks like nothing more than a drop of grey paint on green grass. “It all started with my passion to fly,” Larry Welk shouts through his microphone attached to headphones as he softly guides the huge machine, so strong that it could easily over power him, through the depths of the thick Los Angeles air.

Watching Welk fly is like watching someone ride on the back of a great white shark. Although something like that is only an image that your imagination could devise, this experience, thankfully, is real. Since the moment the helicopter left the ground, a brilliant smile lights up, to simply, Larry’s face and doesn’t disappear until he has once again returned back to reality.

This is not just what he’s always wanted to do, but something he was meant to do. Despite the doubts that many people had, Larry has never allowed himself to be driven by the thoughts of others, but instead by his own passion. The guiding force throughout his life has always been flying.

In a time when it was almost unheard of for the public to receive news media from above, Larry was the one who brought this to the people of LA and experienced the crazed city from a whole new angle. He has been a true witness to everything that LA is: its beauty in its landscape and sunsets, its nasty temper that drives earthquakes, brush fires and floods, and its scandalous lies that are as thick as the smog that drifts between the cracks and crevices that have formed between its iconic magic. During a time when TV stations had to hire helicopter pilots, camera crews, technicians, mechanics and reporters separately in order to capture the news, Larry took his on going passion for flying and his developed passion for capturing LA’s profile and brought them together to form an innovative idea to sell the whole service (the helicopter, pilots, reporters, camera and crew) to TV stations as an all-inclusive package to deliver the news. Larry took this idea and is the founder and president of Angel City Air, a company that that does just that. “We provide the full service. The station gives us one big check and we put their name on the side of our helicopter,” explained Larry effortlessly as if it were the simplest idea in the world.

But, like he already said, “It all started with my passion to fly.” Larry, or Lawrence III, a local resident from the San Fernando Valley, came from a family produced from LA’s Television. His grandfather, Lawrence Welk, was the founder and creator of The Lawrence Welk Show in the 1950’s in which his mother, Tanya, was a member of the cast. Growing up, Larry knew that he wanted to fly, an idea that his parents did not like entertaining. Because of this, Larry tamped down this passion and gave acting a try as he entered into college as a theatre major. It wasn’t long before he realized that it was not for him. “At that time I had three passions, partying, school and flying,” he recalls with a smirk. So he dropped out of college to pursue the passion that could really take him places.

Larry moved to Santa Monica and took a job pumping fuel at the Santa Monica Airport because it got him a discount on flying. “This was a rough time in my life. My dad wasn’t talking to me because I dropped out of college. And I had no idea what the future held.”

One day, while Larry was cleaning the helicopter, he overheard a conversation that a man was looking to hire someone who knew how to operate a camera and could film while he was flying, a novel idea at the time. Larry suddenly jumped up and said, “I know how to shoot a camera!” He was hired and told to show up the next morning ready to film. There was just one problem, “I had never used a camera in my life,” he laughed as if it was a punch line to a practical joke. But with a little help from a friend, Larry learned the basics and was up in the helicopter the next day.

“This is where the passion part took over,” Larry explained. “This guy made me work. I was babysitting his kids, cleaning his car, washing hanger floors, cleaning the helicopter, shooting the camera and flying. I was probably fired about 425 times, but I was loving it!” Passion has always been Larry’s driving force in his career. The day that Angel City Air got its first job was the day that his oldest daughter, Madeline, was born. His passion for flying took him out of the delivery room to take the call. “The news director who offered me the job could hear Tracy [his wife] in the background,” he remembered with a laugh. He now has three passions, flying, his family and Los Angeles, which has taken him on adventures that could only be imagined. Some of LA’s most iconic moments have been captured through Larry’s lens. “The things that I have seen from the sky are exactly what the public is experiencing on the TV screen. The difference is, I see it from the truest angle, from above.”

“I was the pilot over the OJ Simpson pursuit,” he said and you could see the memory begin to form in his eyes. The unforgettable White Bronco chase is still, to this day, an icon in LA’s history. It’s a story that has been told over and over, by parents and grandparents who remember watching it on television. It’s a moment that freezes people in time. They can still remember exactly what they were doing when the images of the White Bronco flashed across their TV screen. Kids from Minnesota or Iowa might not know that OJ Simpson was a professional football player or even the crime he was suspected of committing, but they know that he was in a White Bronco and they know that he was in LA. It’s a bedtime story recreated through pure imagination, but for Larry Welk, it was screenplay that came to life. “It was so surreal,” he continued, “the whole story unfolded in a way that couldn’t be believed. I found myself 150 feet over the White Bronco.”

Larry does not just have a general passion to fly; rather he has a passion to fly over Los Angeles. “There’s no place on earth that has the diversity of things that are going on that Los Angeles has. We cover an area with 11 million people, somebody is bound to do something that others want to see.” He can cover a worldwide event, like an earthquake, brush fire, death of an iconic celebrity, awards show, political convention, bank robbery, or car chase, all in the same day. Larry immerses himself into these moments and strategically places himself within the storyline. His helicopter was shot at and took a round through the tail while covering a bank robbery, “which looked like a scene from Heat,” he said while adventure flashed across his face. There have been multiple times when he has been covering a brush fire in Malibu and realized that his father needed to evacuate or that his own home was at risk. “I was sitting in a sports bar in Dallas when Whitney Houston died. I looked up at the flat screen TV and at the bottom on the screen it said ‘Images from KTLA TV.’ Those were my helicopters providing those images.” 

In a place that is famous for its magical stories that people around the world experience through the giant screens in movie theatres, Los Angeles’s reality is an unbelievable legend written in its very own script. Only a passion like Larry’s can give him the courage to enter into the wonderland of LA’s sky everyday. “I can tell you this about LA; this is absolutely true. No matter how wild your imagination is, you couldn’t make up some of the stuff I’ve actually seen,” he concludes as he begins to land and the smile that lit as he took off begins to flicker out. When Larry goes in the air, he enters into the world of LA’s wild imagination and doesn’t come back to reality until he reaches the ground and finds that this isn’t just a story, it is real.

-- Elise Fornaca

1 comment:

  1. This is a great profile, and such a cool subject to have interviewed, I am jealous! I really like the part where he is watching from Dallas and can say that those are his helicopters. I also like all of the parts about the uniqueness of Los Angeles and the angle that it is such a great place to cover because of all that happens...and I agree! Great job!