Joe Messina wears, or has worn, many hats: talk-show host, CNN commentator, helicopter pilot, William S. Hart Union High School District trustee, prayer breakfast coordinator – wait a minute…helicopter pilot?
It’s true. For a period in the late 1980s-early 1990s, Messina flew and filed traffic reports, helped prevent crops from freezing, took tourists, celebrities and rich people around and helped prospective pilots log enough hours.
And it started, he said, because “I was stubborn and stupid.”
In 1989, he was living in Sunland and working as an electrical contractor (yet another life he led!) at Van Nuys Airport when he took a test ride – and threw up all over.
While many people would take that as a sign that helicopters weren’t for them, Messina decided, “I’m going to beat this thing. I’ll take lessons and know I can do it. End of discussion.”
So, he set about getting his pilot’s licenses, first the private one and then the commercial one because the commercial one allowed him to make money; at the time, he had a wife and four kids.
It was the process of obtaining his commercial license that provided challenges. There were medical requirements, and Messina had a difficult time meeting the vision ones. He was born almost totally blind in one eye, and his vision tested at 20/600 when he needed it to be 20/40 without glasses and 20/20 with glasses. His other eye tested at 20/100.
“So then I went and did something stupid,” he said.
That was a procedure called radial keratotomy, which surgically corrected vision (it has since been replaced by other procedures such as LASIK). At the time, it required incisions via scalpel, and Messina said he had to visit the doctor several times before the doctor consented to do the surgery. He put only his right eye under the knife.
Also at the time, the Federal Aviation Administration did not accept the procedure, giving it a reason to deny Messina a commercial license – if it found out.
“Let’s say I stretched the truth on the application,” he said. “I left that off.”
Applications took several weeks to process, so Messina set about logging the required hours to become insurable. He volunteered to fly above the treetops in Ojai to help circulate heat pods around the fruit trees to prevent freezing, and he volunteered to fly camera parts and other equipment for studios. He also took and passed physical, written and flying tests, and joined the appropriate union.
It appeared he was home free, but then he received a letter from the FAA informing him that his license was suspended because he hadn’t mentioned his vision issues. His union appealed, and if Messina could pass a medical flying test, called a “check ride,” he would have his license reinstated. As luck would have it, the test administrator also was blind in one eye, the result of an accident.
After five minutes, the tester concluded Messina flew better than he did. Messina got his license. “It’s permanent. They can’t take it away from you,” he said. The belief was that a commercial pilot could make good money; the truth was vastly different. Messina found he had to take any job he could.
Many of those were doing traffic reports for local radio and TV stations. He flew KTLA-TV reporter Stan Chambers around for three days when the Sepulveda Basin flooded in 1992. He got a job with a La Verne-based traffic watch company in which he was up in the sky during morning and afternoon commutes.
He did traffic reports for various stations, using a different name with each one. He was “Major Mike Hardaway” on KAVL-AM in Lancaster, “Commander Gene Bryant” on a Simi Valley station, “Chopper Chip Erickson” somewhere else, and Joe Messina on Money Radio AM-1200.
“For KAVL, I had to land there once a week so people would believe it was (the station’s) helicopter,” he said. He had a sign he would put in a window to indicate the station.
Traffic watch wasn’t lucrative. Messina said he made $25 an hour if he flew, $10 an hour if he was on standby. To supplement, he would take weekend jobs, making between $200 and $400.
When environmental artist Christo did his “Umbrellas” project in 1991, Messina flew people to see the 1,760 yellow umbrellas that had been put up in Tejon Ranch. And he flew Japanese pilots on pre-check rides, which were required before they got their licenses.
He flew a rich man’s son to Santa Barbara and waited while he entertained whichever woman he was with. He flew on documentary shoots for the BBC, and he flew the helicopter that appeared in Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” video. “I had no clue who that guy was,” he said of Cube.
He also did what he called “romance rides,” in which he would fly couples from one of the Downtown Los Angeles skyscrapers out over the ocean and back.
After a couple of years, he was done, the victim of burnout. He went back to electrical work for a short time before getting into computer work, which he said “carried my family for years.”
“You’re always thinking, where do I pick up another job, how do I get another gig, can I get another weekend shift,” he said, “and it just didn’t work out well.”