Some time in the eighties I was working in California and shooting a documentary on suicides from The Golden Gate Bridge which crosses the bay at the entrance to San Francisco Harbour
The bridge is a massive structure, A beautiful elegant design .The broad, sixlane, roadway across is supported by thick metal wires which are held at either end by steel towers. The bridge is one of the most photographed man made constructions in the world. It is also very high off the surface of the water.
If you jump off this bridge then the chances of survival are extremely slim. If the fall into the water doesn’t kill you then the damage sustained by the body will render you incapable of swimming in the strong currents and then there are the sharks.
Alcatraz, the infamous high security prison is built on an island in the bay and was selected because of the high risk escape procedure..basically..after you evade the heavy duty guard system and then make it out of your cell block, climb the prison wall and then get down the other side ..all you had to do was swim to freedom. I am unaware of anyone escaping from Alcatraz and sending a post card back from anywhere in the world to announce their new found liberty.
That is why the bridge is a magnet to would be suicides; there are so many attempts that the bridge authorities have a “Jumper” watch situated at either end of the span. These people scan the pedestrians on the bridge constantly and are quick off the mark to foil an attempt when they see a likely customer. Apparently there are tell tale signs that someone is about to take the short flight to oblivion..
And that is why I was there.
Except on this particular day I wasn’t walking across the bridge, I was about a hundred or so metres off it dangling outside a new Bell Jet Ranger helicopter.
The presenter of the programme was supposed to walk along the bridge, in a casual manner, the way presenters do, and talk to the camera, giving as many relevant facts as possible in a conversational way, as they do.
The cue for the presenter to start talking was when a distinctive coloured car, driven by a production team member, drove past him, he would look up to the chopper and begin the spiel as he continued to stroll along .
These plans always work brilliantly on paper.
For the logistics enthusiasts out there this is how it was planned
My camera team would drive from the centre of San Francisco to the International airport about twenty miles or so east of he bridge where we would rig the camera onto a Tyler Mount fitted to the helicopter.
The Tyler mount is a rig that is fitted inside the aircraft and it works on a balance system. A series of weights are moved along a large metal arm that curves over the cameraman and the camera is used as a counterweight .This system allows for any size camera to be fItted. I am sure they are infinitely more sophisticated these days but the gyro or steadying system was not too clever and the cameraman had to put a lot of physical effort into keeping the camera steady during a take.
The mount takes up a lot of space and the rear seats have to come out plus the passenger door comes off. In effect the cameraman has to sit almost outside of the aircraft
The security harness for the cameraman is standard five pin fitting into a centre locking device. The restraining straps are one over each shoulder, two around the waist and one from the floor up between the legs The lock pins can all be released by one quick twist of the centre lock. More on this later.
Radio comms are fitted , one for me to the pilot and an extra one for communication to the bridge team.
Are you still with me…good. keep going.
The presenter is fitted with a radio mike. The director/producer is fitted with a radio mike..the sound recordist is dressed to look like a tourist with a back pack and a funny hat to hide his headphones .These three will be posing as sightseers near the presenter and within range of his transmitter.
The car driver is fitted with a radio. The “Jumper” teams are brought in a and briefed.. We have the permission of the bridge authorities, the radio frequencies have been cleared with the various authorities. We all know what we are doing and when.
Ok, climb aboard the chopper, a brand new Bell Jet Ranger, very nice. And off we zoom, a low swoop over Alcatraz and then to position on the west/seaward side of the bridge.
The brief is for me to follow our marked car, a white one, along the bridge and as it gets to the presenter he will start talking and we slowly hover and crab across until he is finished, then we pull back on the lens and the chopper moves higher and further away to reveal the truly stunning sight of the Golden Gate Bridge with SF in the background.
What could go wrong?..
Everybody is in position, all the sound checks are done, its “Go Go” time
Nobody briefed Mother Nature, or the ten or twelve owners of white cars who all decide to cross the bridge at the same time.Or the twenty or so Japanese tourists who seemed attracted to a strange man, our presenter, who seemed to be having a chat with a man in a helicopter and then they seemed to be obliged to wave at.
This meant that the white car had to go across the bridge, off at the next turnoff and then back across the bridge through the one way approach system and take up position again.This took about twenty minutes.
Stay with it
The bridge is so large that it creates its own micro weather situation. No matter how calm it appears there is always a strong wind roaring around the towers. This makes a hovering helicopter a very unsteady filming platform.
Take two: The presenter fluffs his lines.
Take three: A strong gust of wind blows the chopper badly.
Take four: I follow the wrong white car.
And so it goes on and every take is twenty minutes to set up again.
We began to run out of fuel and the pilot decided to go and refill, at the airport. In the light of what was to happen it was a divine and inspired decision. The trips and refuelling would take an hour or so. Off we went.
After the refuel we were ready to get airborne again. The pilot checked with the control tower and we were given permission to overfly the very end of the runway between passenger jets landing
This is at The San Francisco International Airport, there are a lot of jets landing there all the time, they seemed to be precisely stacked up in the sky, exactly the same distance apart and all lined up on the approach beacons. The end of the runway juts out into the bay. Very busy place and very impressive.
A jet lands and off we go from our hover position, we have just a short space of time to clear the approach.
And then it happens.
At about two hundred feet above the threshold lines the Gyro Assist went AWOL.It broke.
In the space of a couple of seconds and from my perch on the side of the chopper I saw the sky, runway, bay water, spinning horizon and then went through it all again.
In my ear the pilot was yelling instructions to the tower or his God, and we were plummeting towards the concrete.
Which we hit..very hard.
Bits were flying in all directions and I was aware of pushing the Tyler mount off my chest where it had rammed on impact and flicking the release button on the harness. One last push at the Tyler and I leapt onto the tarmac.
The chopper was on its side, the rotor had screamed to a halt and I legged it to the side to jump down into the jumble of massive concrete blocks that form the base for the runway.
The pilot was there before me..You cant beat military training..
The conversation was a little stilted for a few moments as we took stock of our new situation
We were both unharmed but in a slight state of shock.
The chopper seemed to be seriously damaged and on its side.
All of the neatly lined up aircraft with hundreds of passenger on board were now on their way somewhere else, they were peeling off for destinations unplanned.
My radio went off, it was the Producer..”Where the fuck are you?”
I quickly briefed him on our new situation.
He never asked if we were ok, all he said was “Get another chopper and get back out here”…Honestly..
What is it about producers?
I relayed his request to the pilot who simply said “When God tells you to sit on the ground you sit on the fucking ground”
It occurred to me that if we had not done so many takes then the chopper might have been over open water and I don’t think we would have survived the drop from the much greater height that we were filming from. An inspired decision by the pilot to refuel when he did, just a minute or so either side and ..hey ..who knows..
Ok we had survived the crash, screwed up the filming and also screwed up the travel plans of hundreds of airline passengers and now we were waiting for the rescue wagons to appear. We talked, just to calm our nerves
I asked the pilot who was approximately my age how he got into the flying business, it had always appeared attractive to me as an alternative career.
His story had me mesmerised.
During the Vietnam War he had been conscripted into the Military, being a bright lad he had been sent onto a flying course and finished up training to fly helicopters.
(For a book on this subject read “Chickenhawks” by Robert Mason)..
Completed training and off he went to war.
They gave him a gunship. Probably an AH1 Cobra, fitted with twin Cannons. A flying killing machine.
“I was God” he said.
“At twenty one I had the power of life and death. This was Apocalypse Now for real”
He went on to describe how he and his Squadron of Cobras would set off on raids that completely destroyed hundreds of villages, shot up fishing boats, blasted anything that moved on the ground that could conceivably be considered to be the enemy.
It was a fantastic feeling. The Vietcong were virtually defenceless against these airborne attacks and so the young pilots felt all powerful and not in a great deal of danger.
“It was a great life, full of excitement, I had this huge powerful beast that could rip up a village in seconds, two passes with the cannons on full blast and it was no more, wonderful”
Until one day.
He was on patrol as usual and he came across a very small village, he decided to take a closer look and as he approached a group of villagers dashed out of one of the flimsy grass huts and began to run along a jungle path.. He followed them, assessed the situation as much as he could through the jungle canopy as he whizzed past, and decided they were not good people. Why would they be running etc.. He gave them a burst of cannon, Damn, missed, He went round again, another burst of cannon, he destroyed a number of trees and a couple of bamboo thickets but missed the runners, he went round again.
There they were, still on the path through the jungle but they had stopped and were looking at him as he approached for the kill. They could not run any further, dense bamboo and forest on all sides, all five of them were exhausted.. Mum, Dad, and their three little kids.
“It was like a bolt of lightning, I suddenly realised what I was doing. I was a killer of innocents and enjoying it”
He disengaged his attack, flew straight back to his base and refused to fly gunships any more.
They put him on Medivac duties…and that’s another story..