San Diego 'Body found in TJ River Valley," Kyle Anastasio reads a text message on the pager hanging from his belt. He turns to me. "You're going flying."
The drizzly June morning we've spent lazing in the Channel 10 aircraft hangar turns busy. Anastasio, 38, who pilots the Sky 10 news helicopter, stands about six feet tall. His blond hair is cut short except in back where it crawls down his neck, and he wears a thin mustache.
"I've got to fill up the bird," he says, jumping up and striding out the hangar door. He hops in a small tanker truck next to the hangar and pulls it up alongside the black, teal-trimmed helicopter parked on the helipad outside. As Anastasio pumps the refined kerosene jet fuel into the helicopter (a Bell Jetranger III) a tall, tan man in shirt and tie (on-camera news reporter Mark Matthews) approaches the helicopter from the direction of the news building. Behind him, toting a shoulder-mount camera, is a cameraman who introduces himself as Rich. After filling Sky 10, Anastasio leads me to the back left seat of the four-seat, four-door helicopter. Once I'm seated and strapped down, he says, "I'm going to give you a safety lesson on the fly here. When you exit a helicopter, always move to the front because that tail rotor is like a Cuisinart."
Matthews takes the front left seat of the aircraft and Rich takes the one next to me, handing me a set of headphones. Anastasio parks the tanker truck next to the hangar again, jogs over to the helicopter, and climbs into the front right seat. The engine makes a low whirring sound as Anastasio starts it up. The two rotor blades, which had been sagging under their own weight so that their tips hang down to head level, start to move and, as they accelerate, rise up to horizontal position. Within ten seconds they are just a blur. Anastasio lifts us off the ground, and my first helicopter ride is underway.
The lift in a helicopter is different from a fixed-wing airplane. Instead of feeling as if your seat is being picked up from below, the sensation is similar to a tire swing with three chains hanging from a single hook on the bar. The cabin seems as if it's suspended from the rotor shaft; instead of rolling, it swings.
After rising straight up about 40 feet, Anastasio dips the nose down, and we take off over 94 and the blue dome of Holy Cross mausoleum and head south, following I-805. Mist from the low clouds dampens the windshield. Except when someone in the helicopter is talking, the audio of a 10 News broadcast comes over the headphones. At 11:35, ten minutes after receiving the page, we're over the San Diego Country Club in Chula Vista. Anastasio spots a plume of smoke in the downtown area behind us and to the right. "Want to check it out?" Matthews asks.
"That body isn't going anywhere," Anastasio says, banking the chopper to the right, "this fire isn't going to be burning long."
We cross over I-5 and fly north up the east side of the bay. Just after flying over the Coronado bridge, Anastasio turns the helicopter to the right again. The fire is already out; no smoke is visible. He and Matthews swivel their heads from side to side. At 11:45, while hovering over City College, Anastasio spots an overturned car and a fire crew on the transition road from 163 south to 5 north. "There it is," he points, "but the [Lindbergh] tower is telling me to clear out for traffic." Banking up and left, we swing over Symphony Towers and Centre City East to make room for a Southwest airliner on its approach. "Should we shoot it?" he asks Matthews.
"No, let's get out. The fire's out and it's not blocking traffic."
Instead of continuing the left circle, Anastasio flies back down the east side of the bay. Over Imperial Beach we hit a fog bank. A couple of minutes later, we're over the Tijuana River canyon. Green and white Border Patrol trucks, facing the border, keep vigil on every knoll or outcropping. Before crossing the border, we bank to the right and head toward the mouth of the river, where Anastasio has spotted three Border Patrol vehicles and a sheriff's jeep. As we near the ocean, I look out my left window down to the sandy floor of the bull arena in Playa Tijuana. On the beach, about 100 yards this side of the border, four Border Patrol agents and one sheriff's deputy stand in a circle.
"Where's the body?" Anastasio asks, circling around to the right. "Is it that black thing?"
"No," Rich answers, "I think that's driftwood. There it is, about 50 feet up the beach from them."
My eyes scan north up the beach and almost pass over the body, on its back just above the wet line in the sand. Its color, the sickly white of skin that's been under a Band-Aid, camouflages it in the white sand.
The feet point to Mexico, the head toward San Diego. The right arm points out to sea and the left arm lies against its body or is not there at all, I can't tell. No hair is in evidence. "That's one of the worst floaters I've ever seen," Anastasio says. On the second pass around, Rich slides his door open and swings his feet out onto the skid and positions himself for a shot of the body. Over the radio, the news desk says they want to go to a live shot, but not of the body.
On the third pass, Matthews turns over his left shoulder to face Rich, who alternates between live shots of Matthews and the group of law-enforcement agents on the beach. The pictures are relayed back to the station by microwave antennae attached to the skids of the helicopter. "We're not going to show you the body," Matthews explains to the camera, "as it is badly decomposed."
After the fourth circle around the beached corpse, we head up the strand. I ask Anastasio how often he sees washed-up bodies. "I've seen a lot. Sometimes, when it's raining and the river is really high, it seems like once a week a body comes washing down the river. But they usually don't look as bad as that one."
As we fly over Coronado Cays, the news desk radios and tells Anastasio to go up to Del Mar to get some footage of the racetrack. It's needed for a report on the similarity between the architecture at the track and the proposed downtown ballpark. He banks the chopper left and we fly up the center of the bay. "Look at that Coast Guard," Anastasio says.
"Where?" I'm peering down at the water, looking for a cutter.
"Across the bay, hovering by the blue crane." It's a Coast Guard helicopter he's spotted and we're flying right towards it.
"What's he looking at?" Anastasio asks.
"I think it's that boat down the bay trailing an oil slick," I answer, and before the word "slick" is out of my mouth, he puts Sky 10 into a hard right bank and we fly down the bay about a mile to where a tugboat is towing up the bay a three-quarters-submerged wooden vessel. The midday sun, just now breaking through the fog, shimmers on the long, widening oil slick trailing from the sinking boat. Anastasio and Matthews decide it's not worth filming, and we make a left U-turn and head back northwestward, straight up the middle of the bay, again crossing over the Coronado bridge. I look down on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier at North Island. Veering right, we fly directly over Lindbergh Field's runway and follow I-5 up through Rose Canyon, flying at even altitude with the peak of Mount Soledad. Where 52 meets I-5, we turn left, fly over huge bluff-top mansions, and cross the shoreline at Torrey Pines Golf Course. The water looks more green than blue.
At 20 minutes past noon, we reach the racetrack. Anastasio slows the helicopter to a near hover and slides into a broad-right turn. "Let's get a couple of orbit shots from about 300 feet," Rich suggests, as he slides his door open and swings his feet out onto the skid, shouldering his camera. Holding the craft very steady, Anastasio makes two slow passes around the track and grandstand. He chats with Matthews about the NBA finals between the Utah Jazz and Chicago Bulls.
Two orbit shots over, Rich back in his seat, and the door closed, we head back down the coast, 200 feet off the water. I can see children running up and down the trails of Torrey Pines State Park. Past the golf course, Anastasio veers left and follows 805 south. At 12:40, he puts the helicopter into a descending left U-turn over Holy Cross -- I could step out my door right onto the mausoleum's blue dome -- floats 75 feet above highway 94, and sets Sky 10 down without a noticeable bump.
I unhook my belt, pull off my headphones, open the door, and hop out. The down draft of the turning blades nearly blows me over. Though I realize they're spinning a full four feet above my head, I can't help ducking as I move to the front of the helicopter, away from the Cuisinart tail rotor, and out the gate at the corner of the fenced landing area. Matthews and Rich return to the news building, and Anastasio sits in Sky 10 filling out his log while the rotor winds down.