It's a tight space—and there's no WiFi—but Jessyca Malina's workplace has views no office building can offer.
The Skokie native operates a helicopter camera, flying over Chicago and beyond to record footage for CBS Chicago and FOX 32. While her videos of breaking news (which largely show crises like shootings, fires, or traffic accidents) surface on television, she also often shares her own aerial photographs online. Her Instagram and Twitter accounts are wondrous feeds, featuring unparalleled views of the city, the suburbs, and the exurbs during all seasons. (Chicago's Whet Moser credited the latter with keeping him sane last year.)
"I just want to show people what is actually out here," Malina says. "I want to show people that Illinois is pretty awesome."
This year, she celebrates her fifth anniversary at this sky-high position, which she says she "kind of got by accident." A radio broadcasting major, Malina previously reported on traffic before a friend alerted her to this job, which is based at the Schaumburg site of the chopper agency U.S. Helicopters, Inc.
Today, the photog is part of a shrinking force of helicopter camera operators across the country—and one of just a handful of women in the field. I spoke with her over the phone about what it's like to nestle in a whirlybird and scrutinize Earth's surface for a living.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I actually have no idea. We don’t have a set schedule—it’s kind of like a firefighter's schedule, where you go into the hangar and wait for whoever is at the assignment desk to call and say, "Check this out for us." And they decide how long they want us to hang out.
There can be a week where I’m not flying at all, which kind of stinks because I have to get really dirty helping the mechanics clean stuff around the hangar. Other times I'll be living in the helicopter, and I have to make sure I bring a snack because the only time we’ll land will be to refuel.
Can you describe your setup in the chopper?
So I’m not leaning out a helicopter door gathering the news. The camera is on its nose, and I have this laptop. It’s hot, so imagine carrying a hot pizza in the car as you’re driving home. Then I'm using…think of an Etch A Sketch. There are these knobs that go left and right then up and down, and I use those to focus on the subject. It can be tricky when you're filming a car chase because you have to follow them, especially when it’s super windy and bumpy.
Have you flown in all kinds of weather?
Oh, yeah. We can’t really do it when the clouds are super low—so when it’s foggy or misty—or when there’s lightning. But I have flown through storms, and it’s been crazy. The station always wants us to go up to film the waves on Michigan. And I’m always like, Noooo don't you understand the waves are there because of the wind? Then if we’re downtown, we always end up getting turbulence because of the way the wind hits the skyscrapers. The wind creates a weird little vortex, and it knocks us around everywhere.
Did it take you a while to find your air legs?
Not really! I feel it was a natural calling to do this. My grandpa had his pilot’s license, and he had a small little Cessna plane, so I would go in that every now and then. And I used to work for American Airlines. So being around aviation stuff is homey. It’s familiar, and it’s fun.
This is probably a tough question to answer, but what’s the best view you’ve ever seen?
Weather-wise, I love seeing shelf clouds because they are so unique. It’s almost like looking at a waterfall—there’s a straight line then the clouds are just dipping and rolling. I like doing New Year's Eve just to see the fireworks. One time we got to film these geese that shut down the highway.
My favorite thing to do is look for animals. There’s a bald eagle nest over by O'Hare, so I always try to creep on them and see what they’re doing. There are some baby bison over by Fermilab that I love checking out.
What's your favorite season during which to fly?
Probably fall because you still have some green, but you can just see those bright brilliant reds and oranges…and it’s only for a week. But actually, winter is pretty amazing when you get to see the frozen water on the lakes and rivers. Those are so gorgeous from above. Just seeing the patterns, it's just…whoa. It's awesome.
Do you prefer daytime or nighttime?
Definitely nighttime. I find it really fascinating how different cities and towns have different colored streetlights. Chicago is mainly this yellow color, and Cicero is this blueish-green color, and other towns have this bright, white light. When you get to Chicago at the border of Oak Park, you can also see a dramatic difference between the city lights.
Does the view ever get old?
No. Are you kidding me? Even when I’m flying in a regular plane I’m always fighting for the window seat. I love it. It’s the best.