As an aerial coordinator for Hollywood movies, helicopter pilot Alan Purwin has witnessed plenty of make-believe mayhem. But from the skies above New Orleans and neighboring Gulf Coast cities, he has seen annihilation and misery far beyond celluloid fantasies.
Purwin and his copter-for-hire business, Helinet Aviation Services of Van Nuys, are largely responsible for the mesmerizing aerial footage that has shown the murderous power of Hurricane Katrina.
Since Wednesday, Purwin and copilot and cameraman J.T. Alpaugh have had the TV news chopper franchise all to themselves, thanks to restrictions placed on the crowded airspace above the disaster zone.
To safeguard rescue aircraft shuttling through the area, the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday directed the major networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox -- to pick a single pool helicopter to gather video feeds. Helinet, which was first on the scene with a sophisticated, high-definition camera system mounted on its copter, got the job. "The aerials were fantastic," said Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage for CBS News.
For Purwin and his staff, who had raced to New Orleans gambling on lining up paying clients, the speculative venture turned into a business coup. But Purwin said it wasn't about the money. He said the care and feeding of his 10-member crew, plus two satellite trucks and a copter, would chew up most of the profit. The important thing, he said, is to convey through images the enormity of the damage and the scale of recovery needs.
"This is beyond comprehension," Purwin said on a cellphone during a brief refueling stop. "It's really hard to string the words together to sum up what J.T. and I have seen since we got there Monday afternoon."
For Purwin, 44, the experience is sure to be an indelible milestone in a flying career that began when he was a kid.
Just 18 when he got his first paid gig as a helicopter crop duster in central Indiana, Purwin cofounded West Coast Helicopters in 1987. The company became Helinet through a merger a few years later.
With a fleet of 50 copters, the company has amassed numerous screen credits and transported thousands of organs for transplant surgeries at Los Angeles area hospitals. Helinet also boasts of serving former presidents Clinton, Bush, Reagan and Carter, as well as foreign heads of state. The company also has ferried movie stars -- including Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Cameron Diaz -- and executives of Fortune 500 companies.
Its biggest business, however, is leasing helicopters, equipment and crews to nearly 30 television stations, including four in Los Angeles. The company booked revenue of $21 million in 2003, but has not disclosed 2004 sales.
It hasn't always been an easy flight. In 1996, while filming a TV ad, Purwin's partner Michael Tamburro was killed and Purwin himself was injured when the copter he was piloting crashed. Two years ago, Helinet and its insurers had to pay a $13-million jury award to a former KTTV-TV Channel 11 cameraman who suffered severe leg injuries in the crash of a leased copter.
For Helinet, heading to New Orleans was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Purwin said he was returning from a family vacation in Hawaii late on Aug. 27 and was struck by reports of the hurricane bearing down on New Orleans. With no way of knowing how bad the storm would actually be, he assembled a crew the next day and decided to head out.
By last Monday afternoon, when Purwin and Alpaugh arrived by private jet in Lafayette, La., a few hours after Katrina had roared through, their copter and a satellite truck -- flown and driven down, respectively, from New York -- were there to meet them.
Alpaugh, Helinet's chief technology officer, said that besides feeding pictures to the networks, he had used the high-definition camera to zoom in on stranded victims and report their locations to Coast Guard and National Guard choppers. The rescuers "hoisting victims off roofs are doing the hero work," Alpaugh said, but added: "I'd like to think that we've helped to save lives."
He recalled what happened when they took up an officer for the New Orleans Harbor Police, who saw that his neighborhood was completely underwater.
"The look on his face I will never forget," Alpaugh said. "His head dropped into his hands and this grown man, this lieutenant of police, started to weep.... We all got choked up. We felt the enormity of his situation, and that everything he had worked for was gone."