Photo by Micah Muzio.

Meet YouTube’s Latest Sensation: Micah the Helicopter Pilot

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Insights on soaring over Disneyland, the Kobe crash and why he doesn’t do tours.

To call this car reviewer and aviation enthusiast down-to-Earth might be trite, but it’s right.

Look no further than Micah Muzio’s bio on his employer’s website to see his humble self-awareness. “I used to be a janitor,” he writes. “Now I test drive cars and produce award-winning video reviews. Clearly, fate has smiled upon me.”

By day, Muzio is the managing editor of video for Irvine-based Kelly Blue Book where he drives all sorts of fancy and not so fancy cars and trucks. But it’s what he does during his off-hours that has recently earned him an international following that continues to blossom.

Photo courtesy of Micah Muzio.

After Muzio punches out, he jumps into a helicopter and flies the skies above L.A., capturing the aerial footage on four little cameras. When he’s done, he edits the footage and uploads the videos on YouTube.

And he takes requests!

You couldn’t ask for a better guide to our fair city. Muzio went to high school in Kern County, flies out of Long Beach and clearly knows so much about what lies in between. Best of all, as you will see in this interview, when he talks about flying he doesn’t try to impress you with technicalities.

He’s clear, upbeat and often sounds like a guy whose favorite team just made the playoffs.

Part of the popularity of his “flyover videos,” as he calls them, is the subject. L.A. is a gorgeous place, even more so from above. But Muzio is also entertaining, amenable and informative.

He will tell you everything you might want to know about his little Enstrom 280C copter, he will show you how he got his day job and he will answer questions from inquisitive followers on social media.

But we had even more questions and he was more than generous with his time as we delved into his life defying gravity.

Many of us first became aware of you about a month ago when you flew over L.A. right after the shutdown. Is that also when your viewership began to rise?

Yeah, I’ve been doing helicopter videos for a good, long while. What changed with that is when everything shut down, general aviation wasn’t. … That gave me some unique access to see what the world looked like.

I put the video up and it didn’t do much. But then people started to share it. People are trapped at home, and here they have an opportunity to see what the world looks like right now. So it’s an interesting way to get out and see.

It’s not just curiosity about the coronavirus and its effect on how society is moving, but people are also getting to see a place that they are kind of familiar with but with a different perspective, literally.

Yes, but you also deserve credit. You are such a good-natured host, willing to fly over random places that some weirdo stranger asked you to do in the comments.

It’s true, yeah. I get so many requests for specific flyovers.

Somebody asked me to go over a Greek Orthodox church. And I will look and see where it is and how far do I have to deviate. And a lot of times all I have to do is aim the helicopter three minutes in the wrong direction to make somebody’s day.

If I can do that, of course, why wouldn’t I?

One of the places I know you were asked to fly over was Disneyland. And as someone who loves watching car chases, I’ve learned that helicopters aren’t usually allowed to do that. How were you able to get clearance to fly over it the other day?

Image of temporary flight restriction zone over Disneyland.
The Temporary Flight Restriction over Disneyland.

There’s something called a “TFR,” a Temporary Flight Restriction. And the word “temporary” here is really stretched to its radical extreme in the case of Disney. They have petitioned to basically keep it permanent under the guise of preventing terrorism. I think it was enacted in 2004.

The thing is, it makes for a much more pleasant experience for the park-goers. So I think they’re using a technicality in the law to enable a really good experience.

I have always viewed that 3-mile radius around the park as impenetrable. But other pilots reached out after I did one of my videos and said, “You can make it happen.”

Basically, you have to talk to air traffic control and as long as you do, you can transit that area.

You’re not allowed to linger or do laps around Disneyland, but if you’re just going through it’s OK.

And how interesting that even when it’s closed there’s still a bit of red tape to make it happen.

Honestly, if the park was open I don’t know if I would have been so bold to go through there. I imagine there’s a fair bit of scrutiny. I’m just a dude with a helicopter. Disney is a massive, powerful organization with a lot of pull. I don’t want to be poking that bear.

Are there any other places in L.A. like that?

SoFi Stadium
SoFi Stadium, the future home of the Rams and the Chargers located in Inglewood. Photo by CrispyCream27 / WikiCommons

Yes. Another area that is a little bit tricky is the new SoFi Stadium. People really want to see that stadium. The problem is it’s right in the flight path of LAX.

What’s been really neat is in addition to hearing from people all around the world about my helicopter flights, I’ve gotten a lot of comments from air traffic controllers. And so I know some people now at LAX who tell me, “Hey, if you want to go over SoFi, here’s who you need to talk to.”

I literally this morning got a message from an LAX controller who told me “The quietest day is Saturday afternoon. So if you try SoFi on Saturday afternoon, that’s probably your best bet.” I’m hearing from controllers and they’re trying to help me out with my videos. … I would never have expected that.

How about the traffic controller the other day on one of your videos who knew who you were?

That was wild! I asked him to follow up with me on Instagram and he did.

When you are a pilot, one of the things that’s instilled in you is almost a sense of fear about air traffic controllers. They’re this authority. You have to speak in this specific way to them. It’s very intimidating.

What I found is they have to operate by rules and they want to do a great job, but they’re also incredibly friendly and enthusiastic about aviation. I’ve had some wonderful interactions with air traffic controllers. So that has been one of the surprising delights that have come from my flyover videos.

Did he recognize you because of your unique helicopter?

I think he might have recognized me because of my tail number. I suspect he saw one of my videos and thought, “I wonder who this guy is?” Which, by the way, is one of the interesting things about this. People can actually track my flights.

I’m not sure how I feel about that level of scrutiny, but people who know my N-number, and I say it in every video, can track me on places like FlightAware.com and see where I am going in real-time.

In one of your videos, you were commiserating with a fixed-wing pilot about how expensive this hobby is. Have you considered giving private tours to deflect that cost?

That’s another unexpected angle of this. I have gotten a lot of requests. “Hey, do you do tours? Can I fly along with you?” And if I flew with everyone who has reached out, it would be a full-time job.

I used to have a lot of enthusiasm about automobiles. And my day job is a car reviewer, and that really squeezed a lot of the enthusiasm out because it becomes an obligation. So I don’t want to make flying an obligation. But I’ve reached out to the company I do my flight training with about some collaborations, not the least of which perhaps [is] doing some tours in a targeted way, so I could take people out and show them L.A. from the sky.

It isn’t something I do currently, but it is something I have entertained because there’s so much demand for it. It would be more than a money grab. It would just be a neat thing to do with people who are eager to have an introduction to flight.

People who know that I have lived in L.A. for a long time sometimes DM me and say, “Hey, my cousin is coming there in a few weeks. Could you give him a tour?” And I’m like, “Oh, hell no.” Is that how you take it when you’re asked for a tour?

Not really. It’s like, if I could accommodate it, I would actually love to because it’s just a really good excuse to fly. But I just don’t have the bandwidth.

I got a request the other day from a kid who said, “Hey, it’s my birthday on the 10th, can you fly over my house?”

And the thing is I thought about it! I looked at my schedule. I thought, “Can I fly over this kid’s house on the 10th?”

But it’s Mother’s Day. And as a guy with a wife and a mother, there’s no way I could do it. But I actually entertained it. I don’t know what that says about me.

I gotta ask you about the Kobe Bryant crash. What’s your take? Was it the terrain or the fog that made it difficult for that pilot?

I’m not an authority on crash investigations. I’m literally just a dude with a commercial pilot rating. But if I had to offer comment, it would be that on that day, I wouldn’t have been flying. Visibility is a major killer for helicopter pilots.

The terrain really isn’t the problem. You can hit anything if you just can’t see it. For me, the big concern would have been flying in a disorienting situation.

I don’t have my instrument rating, but I do have commercial rating, and as part of that you have to do a certain amount of instrument training time.

In flying, especially in helicopters, using just instruments is extremely difficult. When you can’t see the horizon, it is very difficult to fly an inherently unstable aircraft like a helicopter safely. I would suspect that that was the key concern.

“Inherently unstable” is a phrase you’ve used to describe helicopters in some of your videos. And you demonstrated that when you showed how tough it is just to hover a few feet from the ground. Does it get easier when it’s a larger helicopter like the one Kobe was in or is it easier in a smaller helicopter like yours?

It’s much easier to fly a larger helicopter. The smaller you go there’s less mass, less inertia. The mass of a larger rotor system in a larger helicopter prevents the wind from moving you around and it just makes everything more stable.

I did all my training in the Robinson R22. That’s a tiny little helicopter. It weighs less than 900 pounds empty, and it is so twitchy. You have to make all these constant little adjustments with the controls. I remember my first time flying it I thought if I had built this, I would have made an uncontrollable flying machine. And then, eventually, your brain makes those little neural-pathways and it begins to make sense.

But a tiny helicopter is very unstable. A larger helicopter like the S-76 that Kobe was flying in is a lot more stable.

You’ve shot videos over what might seem to be secure places like the L.A. Port. Privacy-wise, can you fly over anywhere you want?

Well, not literally anywhere. The limitations are dictated by airspace. There are places I can’t fly. There are places on aviation maps that are restricted, like military areas.

I’m not interested in exposing people’s private lives. I would say that what I am doing is less visible than, say, Google Maps, where you have a granular view of anybody’s house at all times.

There is something about being seen, though. People really want me to fly over their community or to fly over their house. There’s something wonderful about knowing that somebody else sees you and acknowledges your existence. So that’s something I am trying to provide. Not to be invasive or intrude.

On the flip side, last year you were flying over the super bloom, which was enormous. Could you have landed there?

What you need is approval from the property owner. I landed in a friend’s farm up in Nevada. They gave me approval, so that wasn’t a problem.

You may have remembered last year during that super bloom, a helicopter landed in a poppy reserve out in the Antelope Valley and they definitely didn’t have approval to land there. Certain municipalities will specifically disallow off-airport landings. So you need to do some research before you set down. You can’t just land anywhere — though I would love to.

When you fly through L.A., it seems like you often go over the freeways. Is this common?

Yes. It’s a really easy way to navigate. You can certainly fly direct, but it’s simple to follow freeways. Worst case scenario, you’ve got a pretty wide spot to land on if you need to. Also, for call-up spots, when you’re letting another aircraft know where you are, if you’re somewhere along the 110 you can say, “I’m at the 110/405 interchange,” or something. That’s an easy marker as opposed to, “I don’t know, I’m over some buildings.”

Also, sometimes, if I am flying over someone’s airspace, like the Burbank airport, it’s easier for them to track where I am and know where I’m going to be. So if I’m in Burbank’s airspace I’ll follow the 134 north.

One of the things that come up in your videos is your aversion to birds. Obviously, one thing we learned from Sully Sullenberger is that birds can affect a big-ass commercial plane. What kind of trouble can they cause for a helicopter?

They can bring down a helicopter. There was a case in 2012 where a Marine AH-1 Cobra hit a hawk. It hit a critical component called the “pitch change link” on the main rotor, and it brought down the helicopter and two pilots were killed.

Even if it doesn’t bring down the helicopter, it can come through the windscreen [and] injure or incapacitate the pilot. Bird strikes are super dangerous, regardless of what you’re flying. The trick with helicopters is the altitude where you fly is much closer to what birds fly.

When you fly along the beach toward LAX, they want you to be at 150 feet or lower to give a good separation between the jets and the helicopters. But what it does is it puts you right there with the birds. So keeping your eyes peeled for birds is critical.

I’ve talked about birds and avoiding them for a very long time. A couple weeks ago, I had my first bird strike coming back from my flyover at Magic Mountain.

I was at, I would say, 1,700 feet. I have video of it and I will put that up really soon. (Note, he just posted it. Here it is.)

You can see the bird come into frame. And the time it took from when the bird becomes visible and when it hit the helicopter was like 1.4 seconds.

Where it hit was like the perfect place. It hit a part of the mast. On my helicopter, that’s a very robust shaft that has no critical parts on the outside.

But I did have to make a precautionary landing at Whiteman Airport and it was actually nerve-wracking because I did not know if it had hit something super important.

One of the most visible helicopter people in L.A. right now is Stu Mundel, best known for covering the car chases from above for CBS2/KCAL9

I know of Stu. I’d love to meet Stu. He’s one of these icons of the industry.

Would you ever be interested in doing that type of work, even part-time?

It sounds like a really neat thing. There was a car chase happening during my flight the other night and listening to the coordination between the police helicopters and the TV helicopters, it just really sounded like a neat application of a lot of the skills I already have.

But the thing is I don’t want to squeeze the love of flying out by making it an obligation. There’s something wonderful about flying because you want to fly, not because it’s Tuesday at 7 p.m. and that’s when your shift is.

You are such an idealist.

I have the privilege of being a little idealistic with this. I know it’s sort of a unique position, but I love to fly so much. I think a good motivation to fly is because people are curious about the videos I’m making, not because I am dependent on a paycheck for it.

To be a good helicopter pilot should you know every part of that machine?

The thing I love about aviation, and flying helicopters in particular, is you can continue to inch closer to perfection, but you will never achieve it. That impossible perfection is so satisfying.

For me, the helicopter is a humility machine. It continually reminds me that I have much to learn. I am not an expert. I am a guy who loves flying. There’s so much to know it’s good to recognize one’s own ignorance. To approach it with humility and an eagerness to learn is the right attitude.

The GoPro Hero 8. Credit: GoPro

You shoot with several GoPros. There are lots of great photography YouTubers who review cameras and action cameras and several of them have mentioned that GoPros can just die for no reason. Have you experienced that before?

It’s almost like you have been observing me. Tomorrow morning, a Chevy Camaro video is going to come out and the main camera died right in the middle of it. And I was like, “Well, I guess we don’t have that angle.” Yes. I have had a bunch of stuff just go wrong.

I think what has been in my favor is because the helicopter is moving through the air, it keeps the GoPro nice and cool so they don’t overheat. We’ll see how it works during the summertime. But I’ve definitely had that.

At some point, I’ll be doing some flyover video of a very important site, maybe SoFi Stadium. There I’ll be, I’d have gotten the approval to fly in the LAX airspace and the camera’s gonna fail. I just know I’ll be irate. But I don’t have a cameraperson. So I need the simplest camera possible. So for simplicity with reasonable video quality, so far the GoPro 8 that I’m using has done the job. But I’m not loyal.

Let’s go back to the expense of this. How much would it cost for someone to get into this hobby?

It depends on how you want to get into it. If you want to get a pilot’s license, I think it’s between $15K-$20K, double-check with your local flight school. That might be dated information.

Once you get your license, you can rent helicopters. You can rent an R22 and fly around the L.A. Basin just like I do, and I’d say that’s about $250 an hour. The first seven to eight years I had my license, all I did was rent.

I realize that is a lot of money. The old janitor-version of me would never have come up with that. It’s definitely a hobby for people with means.

Credit: Tehachapi High

You’ve mentioned before that you were a janitor when you were younger. Where was that?

I was a janitor at a resort in — do you know where Tehachapi is? I graduated from Tehachapi High in 1996 and I worked at a resort in Stallion Springs called Sky Mountain. I was a janitor there and I worked my way up to maintenance man. I was a maintenance man when I got married when I was 21. I had the big keychain thing.

Eventually, I got into radio. That got me to a connection that brought me to Kelly Blue Book.

Are there any places in L.A. that you haven’t flown over that you want to?

There are so many places. I’ve got a whole big list. I’d like to check out Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I want to fly over the Watts Towers. I want to see the medical ship, the Mercy in the day. I’ve seen it at night.

L.A. is so wonderfully varied and you really get a sense of that from the sky.

Mario underwater
Mario, underwater. Credit: Nintendo.

Last question: Fear. When I watch, I kind of feel like when Super Mario is underwater. When he’s underwater I hold my breath. When you’re flying I’m kind of holding my breath too. Have you ever experienced fear while you’re up there?

Yes. Absolutely. And what’s wonderful is that when that unsettling turbulence or that bird strike or that proximity to that other aircraft that didn’t see me and got too close — all of those things make me remember that what I’m doing matters.

It’s really really nice to do something where your input yields a measurable result. There’s no doubt that my actions have consequences that are both good and bad.

So I have been fearful and I have had moments where I thought, “I don’t know man, do I really want to go back up there?” And it’s been an opportunity to say, “Nope, I’m going to go back in it.”

So, yeah, I’ve definitely been afraid. It’s just a matter of managing it.

Los Angeleno