Working in television news in Southern California isn’t all about brush fires and car chases, but being able to cover them from the air takes a special skill set.
When you arrive at Welk Aviation, one of the LA basin’s two primary ENG helicopter providers, one thing is clear immediately; they know what they are doing. From their aircraft to their pilots, I would use the term extremely squared away to describe their operation. Becoming even more evident the first time I met Mark Kono. We had spoken a few times on the phone before my trip to LA and before meeting in person at Pacoima’s Whiteman Airport, where I was riding along for a morning traffic flight with KTLA Sky 5 (an AS350 B2).
It is abundantly clear once you get light on the skids that in addition to the permanent smile and charismatic personality of Kono, he knows how to fly in a complex environment. Los Angeles airspace is some of the most sophisticated in the country if not the world, with multiple classes of airspace, various airports and every kind of air traffic you can imagine. On this day, Kono flips through radio channels as he is switching from airspace to airspace, tower to tower as we fly from one side of the LA basin in Century City covering a typical but dramatic traffic accident, to a car engulfed in flames on the 405 in Long Beach. Day in and day out, this is the requirement of an ENG pilot in the LA Basin. Constant airspace changes, moving to a different heading or altitude at the request of air traffic controllers as we fly the shoreline transition in front of LAX that has Airbus A380 jets screaming to life above you as they leave the runway at LAX, headed out over the Pacific Ocean. I am left wondering if the average pilot could even handle this much workload, in addition to reporting the news live on television from the helicopter as a Pilot/Reporter. I quickly decide that this is a job not everyone can do. For Kono, managing six separate radios is no big deal he says. It is his normal.
Kono is married to KTLA morning news traffic anchor, Ginger Chan. Together, they have three children, a son, and twin daughters. Even though it is an early start, the couple has an ideal schedule, both working early in the morning and finishing by early afternoon. But it has not always been smooth sailing for this veteran pilot that is now pushing over 11,000 hours in helicopters after over 25 years in the business.
Starting out like so many before him, Kono began his flight training in a Robinson R22, learning to fly at Hiser Helicopters in Corona, California starting in 1988. Hiser was a company that was in its heyday in the 80’s and 90’s. Primarily training local and overseas pilots that were sent to the USA to obtain initial ratings in the R22 and then depending on the student, they would often complete a turbine transition course in either a Bell 206 or MD500 before heading back to Asia.
However, after obtaining his private helicopter rating, Kono ran out of money. He was forced to put his flying on hold while he went back to non-flying roles to build up some more money to complete his ratings. His return to flight training to complete his commercial, CFI and instrument ratings came in 1992 when he was able to resume with a now defunct company based out of Long Beach Airport named “Everything Flyable.” The company was started by a wealthy businessman who did his flight training at the same airport and saw several gaps in the training given and once complete, decided that he was going to open up a company that had the newest aircraft, an incredible team of instructors and the best facilities. According to Kono, this strategy was right on the money. However, with a lot riding on the aircraft investments, facilities, payroll and a slight downturn in student enrollment, the company only lasted five years in operation.
By the time Everything Flyable closed, Kono had obtained the remaining ratings he needed and being hired soon after graduating as a CFI. While acquiring more flight hours, an opportunity presented itself at Helinet Aviation in the early 90s for a “loader” position. The job required flights on bank runs that performed by helicopter from airports and off-site locations in Van Nuys, Fullerton, John Wayne, El Monte and others. The helicopter would then circle back to Downtown LA, landing on the rooftops of banks delivering the days’ checks for processing. Kono’s job was to load the bags in and out of the helicopter at each location. The way it worked with Helinet in those days before the current ownership took over at Helinet, explains Kono “all the loaders were pilots, and we were all working mainly in a ground crew role, but the benefit was, that you were getting turbine time.” During the runs where the helicopter was empty, Kono and others like him were able to log turbine hours slowly, sometimes in increments as small as .2 or .3 at a time. The process seemed tedious, but eventually, all added up, and pilots for the bank run duty became the next PIC candidates, selected from the pool of pilots based on their skill and experience.
Kono explains, at that time, it was a difficult time to secure full-time pilot positions. Vietnam-era helicopter pilots still occupied many flying positions. For example, back then, pilots with 2000 Robinson hours were still having difficulty walking into a turbine positions they would quite easily be able to obtain in today’s world in the Grand Canyon or Alaska where employer’s put you through a turbine transition. Kono took his second hiatus from a flying role to pursue ground-based employment that paid more. It would not be until shortly after 9/11 that Kono would return to flying full time.
His eventual return to flying required a move to Louisiana, taking him into oil and gas work, flying for Tex-Air Helicopters. The company was a family owned business that serviced the oil and gas industry (before being run primarily by the two major oil and gas players in the area today, PHI and Era). Era would eventually buy out Tex-Air and take over their fleet after Kono’s departure. During his time flying in the Gulf, Kono flew many different airframes that included the EC120, AS30, AS355 and even the first Agusta Westland A119 in the Gulf of Mexico, of which, Tex-Air was the first recipient. The company also operated the first generation of the EC225 for larger transports into the oil fields. Kono stayed in the Gulf for a year and a half, amassing a significant amount of hours and experience before finally returning to Los Angeles for good.
It was upon his return that he again found himself working for Helinet Aviation, now under new management by Alan and Kathryn Purwin, previously of West Coast Helicopters. (Alan Purwin died in a plane crash in Colombia, South America on September 11, 2015, while shooting a film starring Tom Cruise.) The company that Kono left had made a total 180-degree turn since his last stint, he recalled. It was a different time, the pay was better, as were the aircraft and morale with the new ownership. Kono spent the next five years as the pilot of various AS350s for stations that included KTLA and KNBC in Los Angeles, ABC affiliates in both Los Angeles (KABC) & San Francisco (KGO) markets, as well as Fox affiliates in both Los Angeles (KTTV) & Phoenix, Arizona (KSAZ.) Where, a short time later, one of the worst news helicopter crashes in history occurred when two pilots covering the same event lost spatial awareness of each other, coming into contact and crashing to the ground in downtown Phoenix. The accident occurred in full view of a third pilot still on the way to the story location in another news helicopter capturing the event as it happened while trying to remain composed and report on the crash.
This crash, although not a direct causal factor, began to spike conversations about combining helicopter news operations. The country going into recession in 2008, further compounded the discussion. Belts were tightening in the television news world as they were in many businesses around the country. Rumors of merging helicopter newsgathering efforts between stations nationwide, including Los Angeles. One of the stations mentioned being the helicopter he was flying at the time.
At the time this occurred, Angel City Air (ACA), owned by Larry Welk and now under the Welk Aviation banner, was in negotiations to take over the KTLA5 ENG contract from Helinet. Kono reached out to ACA, and the rest, as they say, is “history.” Kono has been with Welk Aviation ever since and still flies the morning traffic run Monday through Friday, getting up at 2:30 am to be on site around 4 am to start work. The early shift start time is not for the ill prepared, but something that Kono is accustomed to in a job that he clearly loves. When asked about his company, Kono infectiously talks about the relationship between management and pilots and how the company’s focus on safe operation and listening to pilots concerns, along with continual innovation within the ENG business, means that there is always something new and exciting developing at Welk.
For the best advice, he could give to any pilot looking to get into the same field he works in is “Things have changed a lot in almost thirty years flying, and flight training has become almost prohibitively expensive when compared to the costs I incurred as a student thirty years ago. But it is that investment alone in yourself that means you have to WANT to be in this industry and have a passion for it.” As for the job and the hour he has to get up and be at work, he says, “Some jobs just aren’t for everyone in the industry. One of the things I had to do and I think if you are preparing to enter into this industry, you need to realize that you will have to make sacrifices. Things like being required to travel. To be successful and hit the hours requirements needed, I had to relocate to Louisiana for a period. You can’t enter into this business thinking that you will stay wherever you are now and that the jobs you want will mysteriously appear one day. If the job you want doesn’t exist where you are, you have to be prepared to relocate to where it is to make it work. But overall, stay the course. Be ready to do whatever you have to do to make it work and get the hours and experience you need and above all, be positive.” added Kono.