In August 1970 a lost grandmother and four young children had been wandering in the desert outside Phoenix for four days, and the massive effort to rescue them was stalled. They had last been seen near a little town called (it almost felt wrong to say it out loud) Carefree, Arizona. The grandmother’s husband, Bud Gibbs, 53, had gone looking for help and after walking for miles through the desert, stumbled into a gas station in the early evening. Dehydrated and confused, he’d fallen asleep in the back of a pickup. When he was found the next morning, he was able to tell enough of his story for people to realize this was a ticking-clock crisis.

Gibbs said he had gotten the family car stuck in a sand wash. He had used all their drinking water to cool the engine in the hopes of getting it started. Then he walked off to get help, leaving his wife Ann and four little grandkids—Darlene, Scotty, Linda, and Michelle—without water. That was Wednesday; now Friday morning was soon to dawn. After Gibbs explained all he could, he broke down, so distraught that the authorities kept him under sedation.

The police had been searching in their cruisers and four-wheel drive vehicles, and they kept a roving eye on the local dam road in case the grandmother and the kids headed toward it. Others were searching the desert itself on foot, but it was frustrating. Slight hills, 10 or so feet, swell up and slip away frequently enough to make spotting anything beyond a short distance nearly impossible. It’s brutal work. There is little shade other than an occasional mesquite tree and the saguaro, those behemoth cartoon cactuses that loom like giant tridents.

All over Arizona, people were upset. Everyone knew the desert was a dangerous place, and plenty of people got lost out there and died. But this was four little kids and a grandma. And besides, it was 1970: There were better highways, jets streaking across the country on the hour, and modern television connecting us all. This just shouldn’t be.

Into this slow-motion emergency, a 30-year-old helicopter pilot named Jerry Foster sprang into action. He worked for a charter company on the edge of Phoenix and spent most of his flying hours shuttling executives around in a plane. But he was a helicopter pilot too, at a time when civilians were pioneering uses for a machine known mostly for its military use. Foster was a trim guy with deep, wide eyes set in a triangular face topped by a mop of ’70s brown hair. He had a reputation around the airport sheds as cocky, sometimes even feisty—a bit of a brawler and a mouthy hotshot. As dawn approached, Foster fired up his Bell 47. It was a simple machine—basically two chairs on skids with a thin boom sticking out the rear—and to watch the pilot ensconce himself in the tiny transparent pod, jerk suddenly 10 feet off the ground, and then pop up 20 more, made it seem that he himself was just floating in air. Twisting the throttle to maximum speed, Foster zoomed away at 90 miles per hour, the ground below turning into a blur.

Jerry Foster never knew his dad, never even knew his name. All he’d ever know was that his nickname was Swifty and that he rode a motorcycle. Swifty had knocked up Foster’s mother, Norma, when she was 14 and soon rode off on his bike, abandoning his young son.

Norma was trim and cute, a teenage mom raising Jerry on her own. To survive, she took part-time jobs as a waitress or cook. They traveled the western states, living in itinerant logging and mining camps outside towns like Chloride, Arizona; Umatilla, Oregon; Telluride, Colorado; Wallace, Idaho; and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

School for Jerry was often a single room where one of the wives from the migrant crew might try to instruct a handful of kids in the basics of reading and math. Classes lasted maybe two hours each day, and then the children were expected to help out. Foster watched men blast holes in mountains and create new mines. By age nine he was helping to fill ore carts. Like everybody else, when the day ended, he drank beer or smoked pot. By then, Norma had married her third husband, a man Foster would call Dad, a quiet World War II veteran who seemed incapable of affection. Occasionally, they connected with Norma’s brother, Uncle Phill, a man people took note of, for many reasons—from the unusual spelling of his name to his claimed occupation: gold prospector. Other than his mom, Phill was the one person in little Jerry’s life who would occasionally pat him on the head and tell him that one day he’d be somebody.

Phill looked for promise. He possessed a diehard faith in his own luck, and in between mining and logging gigs, Phill would light out for the hills looking to strike gold and get rich. He prowled the earth, towing a tiny old camper—scratching at bits of rock. Incredibly, Phill would in fact become that rare figure of myth, the man who did strike gold in distant hills (and later became the subject of a 1989 New Yorker profile). But even after he struck it rich, he continued to live in the itty-bitty camper, a miniature studio apartment on wheels. His single extravagance was the purchase of a Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, a premium model, custom-trimmed in gold, from hubcaps to grill, with a hood studded in rubies and emeralds. He kept the car under a tarp and almost never drove it.

But Phill only showed up every so often. The rest of the time, Jerry absorbed lessons in manhood from his stepdad. The grizzled Marine didn’t say much, but when Jerry needed defending from bigger kids at school, Dad took him into the backyard, laced up some boxing gloves, and taught him the basic jab, the hook, the uppercut.

The one thing Jerry did like about growing up with a marine was the tales of manly camaraderie he heard when Dad’s former platoon-mates came over for beers. To hear them tell it, brave action was a team effort, the work of a band of brothers looking out for one another. Often their stories were about making do in the face of the absurdity of war (or life), and their heroism were always undercut by a self-deprecating punchline.

So at 17, Foster enlisted in the Marines. His commanders quickly discovered that he possessed split-second reflexes and uncanny aim with a rifle. He was elevated to special duty and selected for the elite Sea School. But Foster’s temperament, formed in the rough-and-tumble of mining camps, soon sabotaged him. When his young and beautiful mom visited the Marines recruit depot and an officer made mention of her fine ass, Private Foster decked him and he was busted to regular infantry. Not much later, after a big night of liberty in Tijuana with his buddies, they crossed back over the border and couldn’t find any beer. Foster slipped through the skylight of a closed bar, stole a couple cases. And, why not, some money. He was easily found out; after weeks in the brig, he was convicted of a felony and received an undesirable discharge, which comes with its own devastating ceremony. Foster was frog-marched between two MPs to an open field in front of his own company where all his friends were called to attention. The sergeant ordered his company, “About face!” Every friend he ever had in the Marines turned on their heel. As he stared at their backs, a military jeep pulled up and whisked Foster out of sight. Then the company was ordered once again to turn around to see an empty marching field.

At the edge of the base, the MPs told Foster to get out of the Jeep, took his dog tags, and closed the gate behind him. He slumped into a waiting car where Norma sat. She had divorced Dad and was now unemployed. With few options, they decided to drive to Phoenix. Maybe their luck would be better there.

He took odd jobs, delivering for a dry cleaner while scuffling for better work. But on every job application, he omitted his dark secret—Marine discharge and felony conviction. He eventually found work in Montana, delivering dynamite to workers blasting 120-foot-deep holes. It was 1960, the height of the Cold War, and these holes would serve as concrete silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was a massive work site: earthmovers, hundreds of grunts and engineers, piles of explosives. One day Foster was struck by the sight of a helicopter landing nearby. Glimpsing a chopper up close was rare in those days. For most Americans, helicopters were only seen on the TV show Whirlybirds. Foster was transfixed by the genuine article, and the pilot was happy to show off for the young dynamite hauler. He invited Foster for a spin in the chopper, lifting off and doing 360-degree turns by stomping on the foot pedal that controlled the tail rotor.

When Foster stepped out, he knew, perhaps for the first time in his life, what he wanted to do: fly. But not just fly. What had captured his imagination was the particular freedom of the helicopter’s flight. More than the speed, he marveled at the agility. A helicopter, Foster saw, moved with willful precision—flying forward, sideways, backward, straight up, straight down, able to hover or speed off in any direction, like a hummingbird.

After leaving Montana, Foster used some of the money he’d saved up as a dynamite hauler to buy lessons in fixed-wing piloting. But flying is an expensive hobby, and Foster had nowhere near enough funds to get his commercial pilot’s license. That’s when Norma came through, arranging to pay for flight school but refusing to disclose the source of the money. She was managing a diner, still cute in her short skirts and popular with the local businessmen. Foster knew her job didn’t pay enough to save this much, and the thought of how she had come by it made him cringe. But she told him not to worry about it. “Pennies from heaven,” she said. It was a phrase she dropped into their conversations from time to time—a sentiment and philosophy she shared with her brother Phill. Life was grueling, hard work pretty much all the time, punctuated occasionally by a surge of good luck.

Foster took the gift and finally got his commercial license in 1965. But he hadn’t forgotten the reason he’d wanted to take to the skies in the first place: those wild 360s in the helicopter back in Montana. If planes were somewhat dangerous, helicopters were, in the 1960s, death on skids. Ever since Eddie Rickenbacker had dueled with the Red Baron and Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic, flying was glamorous and airplane pilots had become famous. Helicopter pilots didn’t get famous. They were lucky just to survive.

A case in point was Foster’s helicopter flight instructor, a barnstormer named Bill Hall who had a bullet-shaped head and one beat-up flight suit. Hall charged only a few hundred dollars for the eight hours of flight instruction required in 1965 for a helicopter pilot’s rating. The training craft was a decrepit old Bell with two unbalanced wooden blades. The pre-flight prep included topping off the oil (since the clanking engine burned two quarts an hour) and jump-starting the thing to get the rotors going (because the battery was all but dead).

When the FAA inspector came out to fly with Foster for his rating test, a slight drizzle was falling as the two took off together. Foster performed a couple of maneuvers before they both noticed the helicopter rattling a bit, and then a lot. Foster headed straight back to the airport, the Bell bucking wildly as he struggled to set the craft down safely. When he finally did, both of them staggered from the helicopter to find Hall standing there, looking bemused. The instructor explained that when it rains, the wooden blades absorb water unevenly, so of course the chopper gets unstable, and “you probably shouldn’t go up in the rain.” Hall seemed almost irritated at their naiveté. In all likelihood, Foster got his rating because the inspector was ecstatic to leave the airport alive. But Foster was energized by that danger; he relished bringing the wild forces of a helicopter under his control, as if the machine were some bucking bronco. That kind of chaos and fear left most people pale and shaking. Foster felt comfortable and confident.

That first lesson in avoiding a crash landing vividly illustrated why airplane pilots talked about the sleek beauty of their crafts while helicopter pilots described theirs as “10,000 spare parts flying in close formation”—a gallows-humor euphemism for the grim reality that helos crashed a lot, often killing everybody on board. The danger lies in the helicopter’s basic aerodynamics. They are absolutely terrifying. When the big blades start to spin, Newton’s third law of motion dictates that the entire body of the helicopter spins—and just as fast—in the other direction. That small rotor blade positioned vertically on the tail? Its entire purpose is to push back just as fiercely against the body’s natural tendency to spin in counter-sync with the blades. And if the back rotor goes out? The body spins madly to the ground. A helicopter is a fragile balance of such counterforces, and when any simple thing goes awry, highest on the list of possible outcomes is a screaming, flaming death.

Airplanes have instruments to help; helicopters don’t. A small airplane often has two engines and so can limp home on one. If conditions are right, a disabled plane can glide. Some airplane pilots have the option to eject and parachute to safety. Helicopters rarely fly high enough for any escape plan. If the blades jerk to a halt, a helicopter simply plummets to the ground with all the aerodynamic grace of an anvil.

Despite the danger, the chopper was finding its first widespread use in the military, where it was discovered during the Korean War that medical evacuations of injured soldiers increased survival rates dramatically. Now, in Vietnam, the helicopters were being used for medical transport and offensive insertion. It was dangerous work; one in 20 pilots in Vietnam never came back.

Which explains why the Army was looking for instructors to train Huey pilots at Fort Wolters in Texas. With the help of a few moments of discreet silence about his ill-fated military past, he not only got the job but was thrilled to learn that he would now get paid just to fly around in his favorite toy. Things were looking up. More pennies from heaven, as Foster himself had started to say.

The young pilot was brimming with newfound confidence when he got some leave and flew back to Phoenix to visit his mother. She wanted him to meet a fabulous woman she’d recently gotten to know. He swaggered into Guggy’s, the diner where Norma was now the manager, and headed to a table. A young waitress told him the section was closed. “I’ll sit wherever the hell I want,” Foster barked, and then swanned into the kitchen to find his mother. When Foster and Norma walked back out, Norma stepped over to the young waitress and said, “Dianna, I’d like you to meet my son, Jerry.”

They dated throughout Foster’s week of leave, and he totally flipped for Dianna Turner. He was a man of action now, training Vietnam pilots and all, so he figured he didn’t need to waste any time. He asked Dianna to marry him, she said yes, and six weeks later, they were wed. Dianna’s dad was a military man, so Foster, for once, decided to tell the truth about his discharge. The old vet heard the story and dismissed it with a wave. “Get over it,” he told his future son-in-law, as if to say that his accomplishments had already outpaced his youthful disgrace.

Now in charge of training pilots, Foster found what so many teachers discover—that being an instructor is a great way to learn. As he came to know the machine more intimately, he learned that being an extraordinary helicopter pilot meant ricocheting from one hair-trigger decision to the next. And he was also learning that he had an instinct for it. Foster was a split-second savant.

He understood that the helicopter was not just an unusual flying machine. It opened a new frontier: the world just above our heads. Helicopters dwell in an intermediate space, far below the stratosphere of Top Gun’s flyboys and just above the rooftops. It’s a playground for eccentrics (the breakthrough Hughes helicopter was pioneered by legendary aviator-billionaire-crackpot Howard Hughes). But when you think about it, it’s also the place where mankind has always longed to be—to fly just above human action where we can take it all in and make sense of the world. It’s the underlying dream of DaVinci’s ornithopter sketches, the hawk as spirit animal, the simple freedom of Superman.

As he gained experience, Foster was coming to understand the metaphysical delicacy of the helicopter. Sitting in the pilot’s seat feeling the clicks and whirs of the engine, he could sense on some deep level the capabilities of the craft. To hear him talk about helicopters is to hear a real-world version of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Robert Pirsig’s story follows two bikers crossing America, one at odds with the mechanics of his chopper and the other able to commune with his machine, sensing its vibrations between his legs. “Technology is not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both,” Pirsig writes.

“One thing you have to do as a pilot, you have to trust your machine,” Foster likes to say. “You have to tune into it, listen to it. Your senses know that the engine sound is good, the rotor system is good, because you feel it—it is a ‘feel me’ experience, is what it is.” Foster was most at home in his shimmying bucket of parts. He understood its oddities and moods. And in a way, the helicopter understood him. It lifted him into the air, free of the ground, a place unconstrained by the past and its mistakes, a place where Foster could pull everything together, gather the sum of all those parts, and cohere into the man he’d never known he could be.

Homer Lane’s big idea in 1971 was really two insights in one. The skinny general manager at KOOL-TV Channel 10 in Phoenix figured his reporters could beat the competition to a story if they rode in a helicopter. And Lane—a penny-pinching executive who looked out at the world from behind an uncertain mustache—figured the pilot could also do a few traffic reports along the way.

Lane had heard about the freelance pilot across town because Foster was featured in a radio report, “Death in the Desert,” that told the story of that grandmother and those kids who died near Carefree. Lane called him and offered him a job to fly for KOOL. The career of Jerry Foster, helicopter newsman, was ready for takeoff. The station bought Foster a cheap gyrocopter with a tiny plastic bubble cockpit, a slapdash machine that was manufactured by McCulloch Motors as a sideshow to their main product, chainsaws. Foster called it “the Pollywog” because it looked so funny. He could fly anything, of course, but the problem with calling in traffic reports as he circled above Phoenix and its clogged thoroughfares was the thudding concussion of the engine and rotors, which made his report impossible to hear.

This idea of doing traffic reports for television was shaping up to be a fiasco. But Foster wanted this job. Dianna was pregnant, and he needed stability. Foster’s daring solution was to soar in altitude just before broadcast time, then disengage the engine (the way you might put a car in neutral) and watch the Pollywog go into a glide, an arcing fall that gave him about 30 seconds of silence to voice his traffic report—while hurtling toward earth!—before re-engaging the engine and pulling up at the last second. More than once he misjudged the length of his report, and as he was about to slam into the roofs of speeding cars he’d suddenly cry out, “This is Jerry Foster, gotta go!”

Foster’s death-defying dedication to getting out the daily traffic impressed Lane, and Foster became a part of the KOOL newsroom, where the workaday journalists seemed amused by him, and not much else. They were professionals, and Foster was a hick with a toy, reporting on traffic with his uncouth vernacular, unselfconsciously saying “ain’t” and “irregardless” and once wishing all Jewish viewers “a happy Cha-NOO-kah.” He couldn’t keep subjects and verb tenses straight and drove many viewers crazy with his limited vocabulary. “His use of the adjective ‘incredible’ is sickening,” John Ferry wrote in one of dozens of letters of complaint to the Arizona Republic. “He used it five times in one broadcast recently. It’s probably the only adjective he knows.” The TV station’s staff called him Barney Fife behind his back, but a lot of viewers liked his corny jokes. “It’s a beautiful day,” he’d say, “110 degrees.”

No one really paid attention when Foster arranged to take a spare camera up with him in the Pollywog. His traffic broadcasts had been audio only, but Foster understood that TV was a visual medium, and he wanted to bring back footage that could go on the air. It wasn’t easy to operate the wind-up Bolex camera while flying a helicopter, but after a few tries Foster got results that Lane could use for regular broadcasts.

To make his shots timely, Foster would remove the film, pop it into a canister, and descend to a watermelon field near the TV studio, where he’d maneuver around some power lines and then toss the canister out the door. A cameraman would retrieve the film from the melon patch and develop it for broadcast by the time Jerry was reporting the traffic news in the serene silence of a freefall.

After Foster destroyed the Pollywog—in a mishap caused by one of his film canisters accidentally flying into the pimped-out chainsaw’s wooden blades—KOOL-TV spent a bit more money on a replacement, a nice little Hughes that Lane painted in red, white, and blue. Foster was getting very familiar with the old pilots’ adage that “any landing you walk away from is a good landing,” but he was excited to get a newer chopper.

Before long, Foster was edging his way from straight traffic reporting to covering the news. One day, a tanker overturned on the highway. The cops were there pronto, and reporters from the newspapers and TV stations were having trouble getting to the scene. Foster, hovering above the accident, called in directions to his KOOL-TV colleagues for a shortcut so that they would beat the competition. When they arrived, they interviewed officials and recorded their usual stand-ups from the scene. But when the story aired that night, “Flames, Smoke, and Mayhem” led with the footage Foster had shot from the air. For the program director, it was obvious which perspective made for better TV. Getting the details right from officials on the ground was fine, but Jerry could see the whole catastrophe from on high in near real-time.

Being first to the scene of any disaster, rescue, fire, or car chase made KOOL the number one station in town. The thrill of always being first on the scene, with a camera, became an obsession for Foster, almost a kind of addiction. He kept a phone and a two-way radio on him at all times. If a call about a juicy story came in from the highway patrol during dinner, Foster was out the door, leaving his (now two) daughters, wife, and half-eaten meal behind. Dianna spent a lot of her day frustrated and irritated. She would give Jerry a few chores to help out around the house. But the sinks continued to drip and the doors wobbled on their hinges because there just wasn’t a whole lot of time to fix those things when the radio crackled. The sheriff’s office even gave his helicopter an official-sounding cop handle. Lincoln 30 meant the KOOL guy with the camera was near the scene and offering to help.

Foster still didn’t fit in with the newsroom professionals, who didn’t appreciate that a guy with a 10th-grade education was suddenly stealing their limelight. He tended to stay away from his colleagues but couldn’t always restrain the brawler in him. He got into a few shouting matches with the other journalists. Things were especially tense with the anchor, Bill Close, who once yelled at Foster for coming onto the set for a live report without a coat and tie. Close was annoyed that Foster’s backwoods pilot grunge had earned him a decent Q-score and on-air appeal.

But the reality was that Foster was a good newsman. And he was good at what was going to become the dominant mode of local news. In fact, Foster was helping to invent that style of journalism. Like the time all the local stations broke in with the news that a dozen Mexicans crossing the border were staggering through the desert, thirsty, lost, and in grave danger. The conventional way to handle such an assignment would be to send a news van to find the cops and tell the story of the operation on the ground, conducting searches and saving lives. But Foster got a call from KOOL, enlisted a friend to come along, and flew straight to the desert, where he quickly spotted his first man. He radioed the police and dropped to the ground as his friend leaped from the chopper with a canteen of water, an iconic moment that Foster instinctively captured on camera for the evening broadcast: a man dying of thirst taking his first grateful chugs. It was a scene that had been shown in a thousand movies, a cowboy on horseback saving the day. But this was the real thing. The guys in wide ties back in the office were reporting news. Jerry Foster was doing something else...

Later that night, back at the station, the other reporters learned that this clip had been selected to appear on the CBS Evening News: the Arizona traffic pilot saving a man’s life, narrated by Walter Cronkite. The hillbilly reporter had soared directly into the national spotlight.

Somewhere along the line Foster had made a pledge to never be more than 20 minutes from his chopper, and to keep that promise he parked his helicopter in the backyard. When he went to a restaurant or a movie or a grocery store, he always chose places that had parking lots big enough for a helicopter to land. He selected his doctor and dentist because each had offices beside an open field.

Foster’s full-blown obsession put a strain on his marriage. While he raced off to rescues, traffic reports, and action assignments, Dianna stewed at home in loneliness. One night, she just broke and then put it to him bluntly, words he can still quote exactly: “It’s either me or the helicopter,” she said. Foster chose the helicopter. They divorced, a process carried out in a kind of defeated amicability. But that loss didn’t prepare him for what came next: Dianna met a guy named John. They soon announced they were getting married and moving to California with the girls. His life in the helicopter was exacting a devastating price.

He helped pack up their clothes and toys so that they could go away and be raised by another man. He was struck by the confounding emotions on his girls’ faces, confused children feeling like their father had abandoned them. Foster spent the weekend mostly drunk, struggling to identify the crippling sensation that engulfed him, only to consider that maybe it was déjà vu.

Foster was a bachelor again, just at the moment he was becoming a celebrity. Every program director in Arizona now realized that a station without a helicopter wasn’t even trying to compete for ratings. Across town at Channel 12 the news director was a fresh face named Al Buch who pronounced his name “Buck” and was often the tallest man in the room. Buch had a bigger vision for what a talented helicopter pilot might do with news.

He quietly offered Foster a deal: a superstar’s salary, the latest radio technology, and a machine that Buch knew Foster could not refuse—a Hughes 500D, complete with sound reduction, state-of-the-art communications, room for five, and a powerful turbine engine. “This thing could go 170 miles per hour,” Foster bragged to anyone who’d listen, “180 downhill.”

One spring day in 1979, the Department of Public Safety radioed Foster for help with a devilish rescue. A bunch of University of Arizona students in rafts had barreled over a diversion dam on the Salt River. Two had drowned at the scene, others had gotten to shore, but one 19-year-old, Gail Mosher, was stuck in her raft at the bottom of the dam, trapped in churning water that repeatedly tossed the raft back toward the dam. Foster grabbed his camera and was at the scene in minutes.

Mosher didn’t have a life jacket on, but she had one tied to her arm by a length of cord. She was still in the raft, holding on and clearly exhausted, getting jackhammered back into the burble over and over again. Foster buzzed into the scene and quickly jumped into action—but not before he handed his camera to a guy standing on the shore and telling him: “Just hold down this button and shoot.”

Foster flew over the dam with a paramedic named Clarence Forbey standing on the skid of the helicopter; when they got into position, the deputy would try to pluck Mosher from the river. But just as they were almost within reach of the girl, she was suddenly ejected into the fast-flowing river. The life jacket tied to her arm popped to the surface, but she didn’t. Mosher was underwater and being swept downstream.

With Forbey still perched on the skid, Foster hit the throttle and chased the lifejacket as it tumbled through the water. When he got in front of the bobbing lifejacket, Foster took a deep breath and did something no one had seen a helicopter do: He plunged the belly of the Hughes directly into the oncoming river. Nose down, hoping to catch Mosher as she floated past, Foster kept the engine revved to prevent the force of the flood from flipping the chopper. Deputy Forbey was now partially underwater too, fighting the river himself, as he reached out for the drowning girl. Foster couldn’t even see what was happening as he struggled to keep the Hughes in position, until over the radio, he heard someone scream, “He’s got her! He’s got her!”

Foster pulled up and out of the water with the girl in the grip of the exhausted paramedic. But as they moved toward shore, Mosher slipped from Forbey’s grasp and plunged back into the river. Luckily the current was slower there, and kayakers were able to pull her to shore, where Foster set the helicopter down and raced over to administer CPR. Mosher vomited into Foster’s mouth several times—resurrection isn’t pretty—and then her eyes fluttered. She began heaving, then breathing.

The Arizona Republic’s account of the rescue primly noted in the 10th paragraph (of an 11-paragraph story) that the maneuver was pulled off by a paramedic who “clung to the skid of a helicopter flown by TV newsman and pilot Jerry Foster of Phoenix.” But television is not bashful. That night, the anchors introduced the report from the dam and then turned the broadcast over to Foster, who narrated the account of his own heroics. He wasn’t just a reporter; he was the story.

Al Buch’s plan was to build the new station’s identity around Foster. But to do that, he’d need to find a way to get Foster on the air live. It so happened that Buch had a friend in Southern California who designed microwave transmitters for the military and was looking for civilian applications. He and Buch pieced together a mobile transmitter and bolted it to Jerry’s helicopter. They installed a dish high on a mountain at the far end of the Valley of the Sun in central Arizona. With that, Foster could now transmit, live, from just about anywhere.

Buch also assembled a new kind of news team to support his cowboy reporter. Foster, of course, was the face of the operation, the ace chopper pilot. The eye-popping visuals were provided by cameraman Bryan Neumeister, a scrawny but fearless techie who looked like his high school graduation pic until well into his thirties. Foster’s lines were now scripted by a sharp reporter named Susan Sorg, a slim redhead who favored conservative dresses and regulation bangs.


When stories broke and Foster was called on to report live from his helicopter, Sorg would be speaking directly into his ear, enabling him to make smart observations and recite one fact after another in his just-folks style. Other stations had helicopters, but they could not compete with the symbiosis of Sky 12’s operation. The team delivered a string of spectacular scoops, and Channel 12 seized and held the number one spot in the ratings. Buch’s dream team was delivering.

This was clear to the attendees at the annual Radio Television News Directors Association meeting in Las Vegas, where Buch and Foster were invited to share the secrets of Sky 12’s ascent. On stage, Buch explained the entire rig: the helicopter, the microwave setup, the pilot/correspondent, and the onboard cameraman. The executives from an outfit recently launched by Ted Turner—a news channel called CNN—took a keen interest in Buch’s disquisition about action news. As Buch spoke, Foster landed the Hughes in the parking lot outside, apologizing for being late to the event. As he was leaving Phoenix, he told the crowd, he heard that a school bus had gotten into an accident, flew to the scene, beamed back footage live to the station while also narrating the report—all as he was booking it to Vegas. After the panel broke up, the entire crew stepped out to the parking lot to examine the chopper. The implications of this novel brand of news were as obvious as they were revolutionary. Up to now, TV news was a past-tense business; television crews with helicopters produced segments, which aired hours or even days later. What Buch was describing was a whole new genre of journalism.

Say for instance you’re covering a man trapped inside a chemical tank near downtown Phoenix, as Sky 12 did in 1984, and rescue crews are rushing to the scene. Police show up too. Journalists on the ground can’t get close. It’s too dangerous. They will only get to report on the aftermath. But here come Foster and Neumeister swooping in to see the drama unfold in a live broadcast that pre-empted regular programming. As Foster hovered and fire crews worked below, more and more viewers tuned in. And that’s when the tank suddenly exploded. Debris and smoke mushroomed from fireworks of flames, killing the employee and a firefighter. Live on television.

It wasn’t just the immediacy of the news itself that made Foster’s team so compelling; it was the surgically precise piloting skills that he used to handle any crisis, large or small. On one summer weekend, for instance, he was covering a story in a remote recreational area. Sheriffs had just arrested a young man for sexual assault when, in a blink of pure audacity, the guy leaped on a horse and galloped off toward terrain impassable by patrol cars. As everyone watched, stunned, they suddenly felt the draft of Foster’s chopper rising from behind them. In an instant, Foster slipped right beside the horse, his skid at shoulder height alongside the rider. He fluttered his left pedal, and gave the man a sideways tap with the skid, knocking him off the horse and down an embankment into a creek, where the cops easily fetched him.

Foster was becoming a household name in Phoenix, and he loved it. He particularly enjoyed impressing schoolkids and scheduled more than 3,000 visits to schools in the 1970s and ’80s. And these weren’t just appearances—he’d put on a real show. With the kids assembled on a playground, he’d float down and rest his skids on the top of their monkey bars. He might do a few 360s over the playing field or, five feet off the ground, bounce backward along the grass.

If you were to tune into Channel 12 at either 5 or 6 pm in Phoenix in the mid-1980s, when the half-hour local news show aired (the national news with Tom Brokaw ran between 5:30 and 6), the first image you’d see was Foster’s helicopter flying directly at camera. Typically, the closing image might be a close-up of a mountain daisy; then the camera would suddenly pull way back into a panoramic shot of a pyrotechnic dusk, the silhouette of a helicopter on the rocky face of a mesa.

The station had begun marketing Foster as a particular kind of Arizona action star, “the fastest newsman in town.” Once, the news director thought he had missed a story about the apprehension of a notorious murderer on the run and, by radio, yelled at Foster as he flew—until Foster mischievously switched to the chopper’s rear camera to reveal that they had the killer, handcuffed, in the back seat.

A few minutes later, Foster landed on the station’s rooftop, where the news crews from other stations witnessed Sky 12’s triumphant return. Foster had not only not missed the story; he had literally brought the state’s most wanted killer to justice.

Foster reveled in his role as a flying cowboy. Here he was, in the American West, soaring into airborne adventures, sometimes even saving the day. Big ads aired in those days with Foster swooping over the valley and the catchphrase: “King of the Wild Blue Sky.”

He visited Roy Rogers and Dale Evans at their new RV park. He began to invest in show horses and took a particular interest in a breed called the Peruvian Paso, which he rode in parades and celebrations across Arizona. Foster’s favorite was his pure black stallion. He named him Rey de Reyes—King of Kings.

Foster’s first real competition came from his original news outfit, KOOL Channel 10, which had hired Karen Key, a 28-year-old blonde who could have been Madonna’s stunt double, and like Madonna, could rock a skin-tight jumpsuit. Key made for good television, and before long the two stations were in a ratings dogfight, with Foster and Key racing to the scenes of crashes, chases, and crimes in a kind of aerial pas de deux over the Valley of the Sun, looking for scoops.

Key was attractive and likeable, and at first she tried to charm Foster, writing him a letter advising him not to feel “so threatened” by the “little blonde with the cute behind.” She was a decent pilot, but Foster was better. And more committed. Key didn’t have a landing pad 10 yards from her bedroom. And she didn’t have an experienced team. Susan Sorg was a focused newshound, and Neumeister wasn’t above pranking Key and KOOL in the midst of their friendly competition. Sky 12 would radio false information to Key, or tell her that the site of some plane crash couldn’t be found, when they in fact had already been there and gotten footage. Neumeister even amped their microwave transmitter up to 20 watts—the legal limit was .5—to overpower their rival’s signal. One time, Foster and Neumeister flew near Key’s station in downtown Phoenix. “We were broadcasting live, and Jerry’s feed suddenly got beamed out by Channel 10!” Neumeister says.

The friendly competition became so unfriendly that the rival news directors had to have a sit-down, like Mob bosses dividing territory, and thereafter the rivalry became a little more playful. Being the more balletic pilot, Foster might inch his way into position when Key was broadcasting live and simply rise up directly into her shot.

Key tried to keep up, but she was almost always late to any story Foster was covering. Foster, after all, was Lincoln 30 and had developed years of trust working with law enforcement. He often got early tipoffs about stories from sheriff’s deputies, who in turn relied on his help with rescues and chases. Early on, the cops had their doubts about Key. In part it was her piloting technique: Her chopper’s nose would often point up on takeoff (bad), and her landings were almost uniformly shaky (never good). But there were rumors too. Some officers told Foster that Key might have a drinking problem. She had recently arrived on the scene of an accident, and all of them could smell booze on her breath. Key was developing a reputation in law enforcement circles, one that was almost certainly made worse by a suspicion of outsiders and the casual sexism of the time. They began to avoid her, which only made her job harder.


Meanwhile, Foster’s larger-than-life persona only grew. He might be seen on air delivering a helicopter full of October pumpkins to needy children or dropping off Santas at a mall. He gave rides to celebrities. He befriended Barry Goldwater and ferried him around Arizona. “He does things in a helicopter that no man in his right mind would do,” Goldwater said at the time. That included flying low over a certain neighborhood in Phoenix, because, Foster explained, that was the part of town where “a lot of people sunbathe nude.”

Foster was single. He was young, fearless, and famous, and he had a helicopter. And it was 1980. He moved back to the city, into a luxurious bachelor pad directly across the street from Sky 12’s downtown helipad.

“I fucked anything that moved in those days,” he says. Everyone wanted to ride with Foster. Imagine being able to take your date to a movie and then ascend into an aerial view of the nighttime city? Foster would sometimes fly women up to a spot in the McDowell Mountains where a big flat prominence served as a landing pad and the wind had worn a cavern into the rock. He called it his Rock Condo. He stored sleeping bags and a mattress up there, sometimes spending the night, staying up late to survey his protectorate of central Arizona with a 120-mile view to the horizon.

Eventually, Foster took note of an attractive blonde named Vicki McCarty who lived in his building. He was 40 years old; she was 28. The relationship developed quickly, and soon Vicki merged her life directly with Foster’s, scheduling his school visits, listening to the police scanner on her own time, and calling reports into him. Within a year they were married, and they became one of Arizona’s premiere couples. Jerry and Vicki would vacation with the Goldwaters, and for a time in the 1980s, Goldwater and Foster were, respectively, the first- and second-most recognized faces in the state.

In the end, Karen Key was simply outclassed. She couldn’t compete with the sheer poetry of Jerry Foster in a helicopter. Key left Phoenix and took a job flying for a station in Denver. Foster remained the King of the Wild Blue Sky, and in December 1982, Ronald Reagan invited him to the White House to award him the nation’s highest aviation honor, the Harmon Trophy, putting him in the company of Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Buzz Aldrin.

Foster schmoozed with the president, and the two had a laugh over a bag of jelly beans. It was a day he’d remember the rest of his life, and not only because he’d gotten an award from the president. Later that night Foster received shocking news. It caught him short: Karen Key had been covering a story for her new station when she crashed her helicopter and died. Toxicology tests revealed she had been drinking.

In the early 1980s, Arizona was hit by heavy flooding for several winters. There were dramatic stories almost every day, many sorties, many rescues, but also many failures. Foster’s career as a newsman had always put him in close proximity to death and suffering, but it seemed to be getting worse as the floods raged. Often when he got to the accident scene, the victim was already dead or lost at the bottom of a lake or river. Foster’s aerial adventures still looked dazzling to Channel 12 viewers—all the on-air emotional reunions and bad guys brought to justice—but what they didn’t see was Foster waiting hours for the sheriff’s divers to pull victims from the depths, or watching anguished families hope that their relatives “were just holding their breath.”

Those long, difficult hours inspired Foster to become a diver himself. After that he didn’t wait for the authorities to arrive; he waded into the water in full scuba gear and searched for the bodies on his own. Eventually, he turned his small team into a part-time diving crew; they’d drop in wherever the person disappeared and follow the current. Foster’s new cameraman Chuck Emmert learned to dive, and so did Vicki, and together they would proceed underwater, shoulder to shoulder through icy lakes and rivers until someone’s hand felt the touch of doughy flesh or the tangle of wafting hair.

Handling the dead became routine, and Foster faced many family members who were both relieved and devastated to learn that he’d found a loved one at the bottom of a lake. But all that death was taking a toll on Foster. First, Key’s crash, a vivid memento mori, and now corpses everywhere. This was the part of his job no one knew about, the spiritual wear of life as a hero, the unaired darkness that gathered on the floor of Channel 12’s editing room. The stories that made it to broadcast were the successes, but in reality, the King of the Wild Blue Sky couldn’t save everyone.

When he wasn’t in the air, Foster was withdrawing. He started spending time with the area’s notorious outlaw biker gang, the Dirty Dozen, Arizona’s version of the Hell’s Angels. (He approached them under the pretense of writing a book about them—he thought he’d call it “Chopper to Chopper”—but it never materialized, and he continued to ride with them.) In those days, biker gangs were still outlaws: violent, territorial, drug smugglers, criminal entrepreneurs. But there was something about the gang’s camaraderie that appealed to Foster. His biological father, Swifty, had been a biker after all. And the only thing he’d liked about growing up with a stoic former marine for a stepfather (besides being taught how to fight) was hearing the stories about the brotherhood of men, life in the trenches together. It was a life he’d sought in the marines himself, and failed to find.

So Foster rode with the gang, a little at first, then more often, taking to the blacktop in formation with men bearing monikers like Mr. Clean, Fat Al (“My motherfucking name’s Fat Al, not Fat Albert, got it?”), Snake, and Rideoff, so called because of the time he abandoned his old lady for an interstate run. There was violence at times, but there was also something deeply comforting to Jerry about riding with these men, men who would defend one another out of brother-love, no bullshit.

Outside of life with the Dirty Dozen, Jerry increasingly liked to be alone. Vicki found herself relegated to being a third wheel with their closest friends, Bob and Linda Oliver. At work, Foster had never really fit in, and now that he was larger-than-life, no one there seemed to quite know how to talk to him; they mistook his reserve for the arrogance of celebrity. But the reality was that Jerry felt tormented. He was having dreams of headless hikers and frozen men and drowned cherubs. Foster started spending time by himself in his Rock Condo, a kind of refuge, waiting for the next emergency, the next body.

One day, Foster got a call to rescue a climber who’d fallen off the White Tank Mountains. Daylight was waning as he and Neumeister sped off toward the kid’s last sighting. They found him, already dead. He was still bleeding when they loaded the body into the back seat of the chopper. Heading back toward Phoenix, the setting sun behind them, Neumeister filmed while Foster gave his usual report on the weather. And when it came time for the signoff, the anchor back in the studio marveled at the beautiful ruby flash of sunset reflecting off the helicopter’s white tail. Foster did not tell the anchor that the red streak they could see was not the beauty of twilight, but the blood of a dead man.

The body count was piling too high for Foster. They were all around him. In his dreams and even in his waking nightmares. Then, one day in 1988, his two-way radio lit up with a report of a young couple who had been bounding around Saguaro Lake in a high-speed cigarette boat with their 5-year-old daughter aboard. They hit some rough water. It took the pair a minute to notice that their daughter, who couldn’t swim and hadn’t been wearing a life jacket, had bounced into the lake.

Foster arrived on the scene within minutes, but the girl had vanished. The next day, he went out and searched again on his own. Something about the case got to him. He felt driven to find this child, recklessly neglected by careless parents. He returned the next day and the day after that and then every day for a week. There were no search-and-rescue crews, no cameras, just Jerry and his dive suit. Eventually, Foster was joined by a cop pal and his cadaver-sniffing canine, a dog trained to locate a dead human body in even the most confusing and unlikely of places—like an entire lake.

On the seventh day, Foster and the cop put the dog on the bow of a boat and began slowly motoring around when suddenly the dog lunged off the bow, snapping wildly at the water. Foster plunged into the lake with a tank and mask, and it was only a few minutes before he touched something that he quickly realized was the girl’s arm. He cradled her and swam up toward the light. At about 10 feet he could see her more clearly, her eyes half open as if she were just falling asleep, blonde hair floating gracefully in the murky water.

When he got to the surface, he wordlessly handed the girl’s body off to the rescue team. “That one rang my bell,” Foster says. It was the last dive he ever did.

The Federal Aviation Administration was growing concerned. During the ’80s, the number of private helicopter pilots was spiking, and government bureaucracies and news operations were buying choppers for their work. The skies were getting crowded. Karen Key had died, but then traffic reporters seemed to be dropping all over. Francis Gary Powers, the spy pilot who had crashed his U2 in the Soviet Union, did traffic reports for KNBC in Los Angeles, and WNBC in New York was working on a Karen Key-like strategy by hiring the lead singer of the punk band Leila and the Snakes, Jane Dornacker. Both ended up crashing their copters and dying. In Arizona, a consensus was growing that these hot dogs had to be reined in. An incident during the Christmas season of 1985 focused the FAA’s attention on Foster. Two guys robbed a bank and fled with bags of cash, the cops in pursuit. They pulled off on a remote road, ditched the car, and flew off in a red-and-white Piper Cherokee airplane. A few days later, Foster and Neumeister spotted a similar Cherokee flying just outside town. They chased the plane down and pulled up beside the cockpit to get a look at the pilot. Not long after the pilot landed at his house, SWAT teams descended with guns drawn, confronting what turned out to be a drilling contractor, Richard Herdegen, and his two sons. A few weeks later, a similar encounter with a Cessna ended with an innocent photographer complaining about Foster’s hotdog acrobatics. Both filed complaints with the FAA, and the agency was more than happy to hold a hearing and essentially, put Jerry Foster’s frontier style on trial.

The hearing was public, and the media turned out in force. On the stand, Herdegen was ornery, reliving the moment he’d spotted Foster’s rotor blades just feet from the tip of his wing. “If I’d had a parachute, I would have jumped out,” he said. “If I had had a gun, I’d have shot him.” He described the SWAT raid that followed once he was on the ground as “a Rambo invasion.”

A local columnist, Bud Wilkinson, called out Phoenix’s “flyboy cowboy” for “dive-bombing” an innocent plane and condemned locals who “worship Foster’s video image and suggest that we bow down to the boorish egomaniac.” Another columnist, E. J. Montini, rose to Foster’s defense, reminding his readers about the guy who had “located bodies, assisted in searches, filmed high-speed chases, and once found a hijacked armored truck.” We teach our heroes to fly, Montini wrote, “sometimes literally.” And then: We “shoot them down.” A lot of people turned on Foster, convinced like one letter writer that the pilot was an “idiot” whose “gleeful contempt for English grammar” was like flinging “untreated sewage in the public’s face daily.”

The FAA rode the uproar, found Foster guilty, and suspended his license. He appealed, and was able to keep flying until the matter was settled. But there were clear signs that Foster’s frontier days were coming to an end. His airborne open range was being fenced in by rules and regulations. Coincidentally, just a few weeks later, Newsweek published a special issue about “Everyday Heroes,” nominating one person from each state, and chose Foster as Arizona’s representative. The citation pointed out that “despite (or maybe because of) his rough manner, Foster is a star.”

Maybe it was the award from President Reagan or the ordeal of the girl in the lake, but Foster had become numb to such plaudits. He found himself taking refuge among his biker friends—on the road all day and around a campfire at night. No one mocked his grammar, ridiculed his intelligence, questioned his skill. He was spending so much time with the Dirty Dozen that rumors began to spread among the authorities that maybe, in his heart, Foster was more biker than cop. Foster heard from some of his cop friends that a secret file had been opened on him. Maybe he’d participated in some of this violence. There was talk of Foster having some kinks, or maybe he was into drugs.

How does a man fall? There are many ways, but when it comes to tragicomic descents, it’s hard to beat the Wile E. Coyote trajectory. There is the dash past the edge of the cliff and that moment of suspension when nothing seems to have gone wrong until he realizes that the only way forward is the anvil’s.

It was a cool winter Tuesday at Gilbert Elementary School in 1988, and several hundred grade-school kids were gathered in the school yard. The children had painstakingly arranged themselves into groups holding up red, white, and blue cards to form a human American flag. All this to greet the state’s flying cowboy during the school’s Flag Day celebration.

For several years, he had a strange retirement, doing little more than riding with the Dirty Dozen. He did make a brief attempt at a comeback in 1994, flying for KTVK, but the world had changed. Now, everyone had airborne action news. That summer, 95 million people watched OJ Simpson’s slow-motion chase down the 405. The sky was full of choppers, competing teams from all the big networks. Jerry was no longer special. He was a relic of a former time. The frontier he pioneered had been civilized by professionals. Jerry’s kids.

And then one night, Foster returned home to find that government agents had delivered a court summons charging him with conspiring to buy and use methamphetamine. Turns out, his neighbor Harold Sweet was a car dealer who had found a lucrative way to pad his income—dealing heroin, cocaine, and meth. He had factories producing hundreds of pounds of meth and used the Dirty Dozen gang as enforcers. Foster and he were friends. They drove Harleys together and even vacationed together. Investigators had tapped Sweet’s phones and Foster was on some of the calls, putting him under suspicion and eventually under arrest. In the end, the charges were dropped. Still, as public relations go, the marijuana-in-the-jacket episode was beginning to look like the good old days. The television station fired him.

Could things get worse? A few months later, his wife Vicki ran off with their best friend, Bob Oliver. Foster had hit bottom. And for once, his aerial existence couldn’t overcome the reality on the ground. So he quit again—this time, everything—and for good. He fled the town where he’d become a man and a hero, retreating instead to the nomadic life of his childhood. He cut off all his old friends, even his children. Foster disappeared.

Foster packed up his camper and drove. He eventually got to his Uncle Phill’s place, where they lived the bachelor life for a while—eating Chef Boyardee spaghetti from the can and catching up on lots of television. Phill was as eccentric as ever. He’d bought a house but still lived in his trailer. He’d bought a boat even though there wasn’t any water in which to put it for miles and miles. But for Foster, the road was his antidote to years of flight. He took a job as a driver of 18-wheelers and spent nearly all of his waking hours in the seat of his semi. For years, he just drove.

Around the turn of the millennium, you may have driven right past Jerry Foster. Maybe you noticed the stolid truck driver pounding down the interstate staring straight ahead, literally grounded, but restlessly speeding away, having traded the bird’s-eye view for the worm’s. Now, lost on the interstates of America, he was recognized by no one; there were no rescues to attend to, no excitement, just the slow flip of the odometer and mile markers on the horizon. “When I saw a helicopter flying overhead, I would look away,” he says. Those dead kids continued to haunt him, even during the day now, and in long brooding fits, he despised himself as a failure and a fraud, alone on the road.

Even in dark times, things can get darker. While in southern California, training with a trucking firm, he found out that Bob and Vicki lived near the company’s headquarters. He couldn’t stop himself from tracking them down. He cased their house compulsively and eventually worked up a plan: He would murder Bob. He circled around their neighborhood. He would sit at weird hours and stare at their front door. He got a gun.

Foster might have rounded off his career with a perp-walk photo in the tabloids. Instead his trucking company called with an assignment to move a refrigerated tractor-trailer full of yogurt to New York, pronto. He’d have to put his homicide plans on hold. He was back on the road, the hobo Foster, thinking about escape routes from Vicki’s neighborhood. Days later, nearing his East Coast destination, he found himself lost. Foster turned down a road and realized it led directly to the gates of a prison. The truck was so big and the road so narrow, he had to turn the big rig around inside the central inmate courtyard, where he got a slo-mo tour of life in prison. The Cosmic Jester rarely sends messages much clearer, and Foster abandoned his plan to kill Bob and returned to the eternal silence of his penance.

A vow of silence alters the world around you. Medieval hermits knew this, how a practiced stillness can make the past flake away and in time seem like the vague fiction of a dream. “I pulled into a truck stop back in Kansas one time,” Foster says, “and these two guys are sitting there talking about Barry Goldwater.” The senator had died years before, and now Foster felt a strange dissonance. Sure, he’d known Goldwater—they’d vacationed together—but if he piped up and said something, who in this shithole would believe that this beat-down truck driver, with his filthy road hair and thousand-yard stare, really knew someone like Senator Goldwater? It was as if he’d never known Barry. It was as if he’d never done anything.

He drove the length of the country and back again for the next decade, speaking to virtually no one. He lacked for nothing. His 18-wheeler had a bedroom with a TV and microwave. He lived off a diet of packaged foods and microwavable meals he picked up at truck stops. He could shower there and catch a quick conversation with a stranger before hopping back on the highway. His life was sealed off in an American roadside purgatory. Eventually, he added a computer to the appliances in the semi’s bunkroom. On it, he could kill an afternoon, eventually cruising for other lonely hearts online, and at one point striking up a digital correspondence with a woman named Linda Smith, who lived in nearby Sun City, Arizona. They hit it off, and it wasn’t long until they were married and settling down in Phoenix. Over time Foster also got back in touch with his three daughters. It had been three decades since Foster took up the Pollywog for KOOL to report on Phoenix traffic, and 15 years since he last got behind the controls of an aircraft. Now he could walk the city’s streets as a stranger. And as the years passed, he noticed that even helicopters seemed to appear less frequently in the skies. Foster read about drones; it seemed like the very infrastructure of his past was not just becoming obsolete but disappearing altogether. Then he watched the rise of YouTube and the iPhone, and who needed a Hughes or a dedicated reporter for live events when America was becoming a nation of citizen Jerrys?

A few years back, Foster joined Facebook, mostly to exchange pictures of grandkids and post cranky political thoughts (like most people his age). But soon enough, he started to accept a new friend request or two—people who remembered that news guy in the helicopter. In time what started as a trickle turned into an Arizona flash flood. All those children who assembled on their playgrounds—20 years of showboating school visits—remembered him as their town’s flying cowboy. First, hundreds of people who swore they owed their careers to Foster contacted him, then thousands. Many had never recovered from that magical spell of seeing the flying man float down to those monkey bars. He met a television reporter who grew up watching his reports in Phoenix. The chief pilot for Cessna sent a message—he’d once been a kid in a school Foster had visited. A pilot for the FBI wrote in to say he too had been inspired by the airborne newsman. “I mean this from my heart, sir,” wrote one earnest fan, “you will always be one of my heroes for everything you have done.” Another remembered seeing Foster “do things with a chopper that others would have thought twice..., before even attempting.” Foster had “nerves of steel—a legend in the valley!”

Cowboys are supposed to ride off into the sunset. But the reality of the old west was that the pioneers and frontiersmen and rugged cowboys eventually grew old and settled down to watch farmers turn the prairie soil and see the West fill with cities. So it was with Foster, who had looked upon that settled west and opened up a new frontier, just above the growing cities, a free range in the sky. But it too was quickly flooded with followers, overtaken with rules, settled into something modern. It was a fate Foster accepted. He was back in Phoenix, now as a civilian, living out his days with Linda and a reconciled family and his memories of how things were.

One day, Foster got a message from his Uncle Phill, the gold miner who had spent all those years with little but his faith in his dark-horse hunches. His doctor had performed some tests, and Phill sent them to Foster with the request that he look at them and tell Phill what they meant. Phill was living in Battle Mountain, Nevada, still rich from his prospecting days and still living in his little camper. For Foster, Phill was the closest thing to a father he’d ever known, and so he packed up his stuff and headed to Nevada to tell Phill that he had colon cancer. The prognosis was bad. He didn’t have long to live.

Phill had always been tough and independent but now let his nephew care for him. Foster arrived each morning to cook Phill’s meals—french toast for breakfast, salmon for dinner. When Phill reluctantly agreed to be admitted to the hospital, Foster visited for hours every day, sometimes just sitting quietly at Phill’s bedside. Then one day, Jerry got a call from the hospital to say that Phill had died overnight.

Foster was Phill’s executor so he was obliged to sort through his uncle’s belongings. Outside, beside the trailer, was that Cadillac Biarritz, festooned in spectacular gold and gems and gleaming hubcaps, and sitting there, as always, in mint condition. Inside Phill’s trailer, Foster came across the paperwork for an $800 loan, the full amount paid directly to Saguaro Aviation. That was the outfit where Foster took his original commercial flying lessons. For decades he’d been wondering who paid that bill. With a shock, Foster realized it had been Phill. And this was before he had struck it rich. To secure the loan, the paperwork said, Phill had put up some collateral. It was one of the only things he owned back then: the old camper he’d had until the end. Pennies from heaven.

For further reading, please check out Jerry Foster's memoir, Earthbound Misfit.


is a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and the public radio program, This American Life. His work has been included in the Best American Science Writing, Best American Travel Writing, and The New Kings of Nonfiction, edited by Ira Glass. He is the author, most recently, of the book, Bunch of Amateurs.


Edited by Mark Robinson
Fact-checked by Chelsea Leu
Copyedited by Jennifer Prior
Built by Brian McAlpin
Designed by Unusual Co.
Photo Producer: Natalie So



Chapter 1 Opening photo: Photo: Roy Cosway; animation by Arthur Jones // Jerry & cactuses: Courtesy Jerry Foster // Foster in helicopter: Photo: Nyle Leatham
Chapter 2 Opening photo of mining camp: Courtesy Jerry Foster // Marine platoon: Photo courtesy Jerry Foster
Chapter 3 Foster in plane: Photo by Nyle Leatham // Helicopter diagram: Public domain // Military helicopters landing video: Edward Fielding/
Chapter 4 Video of McCulloch gyrocopter: Courtesy Bryan Neumeister // Kool News chopper: Courtesy of Jerry Foster // Foster holding camera: Photo courtesy Jerry Foster // Video of Foster walking to helicopter: Courtesy Bryan Neumeister // Jerry with camcorder: Courtesy Jerry Foster // Jerry with daughter: Courtesy Jerry Foster
Chapter 5 Opening photo: Don Stevenson // Letter from sheriff: Courtesy Jerry Foster // News clipping montage: Phoenix Gazette, Arizona Tribune - Courtesy Jerry Foster
Chapter 6 Photo of (left to right) Susan Sorg, Jerry Foster, and Bryan Neumeister: Courtesy Jerry Foster // Photos of Bryan Neumeister & Susan Sorg: Courtesy Jerry Foster // Video of chemical explosion: Courtesy Bryan Neumeister // Photo of school children: Courtesy Jerry Foster // Video of Foster on horseback: Courtesy Bryan Neumeister
Chapter 7 Karen Key: Historic Images // Dueling helicopters: Courtesy Jerry Foster // Karen Key: Historic Images // News image: Associated Press // Photo of Foster with Reagan: Courtesy Jerry Foster
Chapter 8 Jerry in the Water: courtesy Jerry Foster // Dirty Dozen: Courtesy Jerry Foster // Jerry with Dirty Dozen member: Courtesy Jerry Foster
Chapter 9 Opening video: Courtesy Bryan Neumeister // Photo of kid with sign: Courtesy Jerry Foster // Foster Faces Up to Fib news clipping: courtesy Jerry Foster // Sunset photo: courtesy Jerry Foster // Photo of Foster seated: Courtesy Bryan Neumeister
Chapter 11 Video of big-rig: Pathos Media/ // Portrait of Jerry Foster: Jon Balinkie and Jason Grubb