Fearing he would be tied to a desk — or a drafting table — for all eternity, Brian Rosenberg had high hopes for a life of excitement and adventure when he took up flying at 18 and later dropped his architecture studies. He just didn’t know how long, or what form, that life would take, until two years ago, when he was recruited to fly VIPs over hot spots like the Grand Canyon, to cover news events, and to be an aerial angel of mercy.
Rosenberg’s calming voice fills his helicopter cockpit as he describes the functions of dozens of the aircraft’s flips, switches and display monitors. In his business, calm is good. No problem: Whether he’s chartering VIP tours for Sandra Bullock, Jesse James and Leonardo DiCaprio, for instance, or patrolling the streets for Fox 11 News, ABC and KTLA, or transporting live human organs, Rosenberg keeps his cool.
Rushing organs to waiting surgeons is a serious responsibility, but flying for a news channel, competing against other stations racing to snare the first footage, is cutthroat. On one such mission, Rosenberg was sent to fly over a freeway accident in which a driver had sped the wrong way up a freeway on-ramp and into oncoming traffic. During a two-and-a-half-hour pursuit, 12 helicopters swarmed the skies above.
“Maneuvering over pursuits can be pretty intense,” says the 31-year-old Rosenberg. “You’re communicating with all the helicopters and air traffic controllers. You don’t know which direction the vehicle is going to go. It’s constant dancing around in the air.”
Often on call, Rosenberg is commanded to remain within 45 minutes of the Van Nuys Airport for days on end. Clocking 10- to 14-hour days, he is grateful to know he has played a part in saving a life: “I get to see the entire process happen, from the transport of the organ to when it hits the operating room.”
At a hospital, he will pick up a surgeon and assistants carrying organs in “just a regular-size cooler.” He flies them to the destination hospital and sometimes is even invited into the operating room. On one such occasion, Rosenberg grew queasy at the stench of burning human flesh, as surgeons sawed open the donor — a former prison inmate who hanged himself — to retrieve his heart and lung for a waiting patient. But Rosenberg says he wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything, and he has since changed the donor status on his driver’s license — to future donor. “Seeing firsthand how everything is done made me realize how important it is.”
It was while he was an architecture student at Santa Monica College that Rosenberg got a serious urge to fly. During breaks and after classes, he became a fixture in the nearby Santa Monica Airport pilots’ lounge, where he met Vietnam-era pilots who took him under their wings. After two years of training in Oakland, he took the oral, written and practical exams to fly private and commercial aircraft, and then found a job as an instructor at a small flight school in Las Vegas. “Getting a job after graduation is the hardest part,” he says. “You spend $80,000 to a $100,000 for training and the first job, you’re working for peanuts.”
After eight years of instructing and flying for small aviation companies, he was recruited by Helinet Aviation, which gave him his unique opportunity.
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“The job is different every day,” he says. “It’s a combination of everything I enjoy, from the aviation world to being able to be a part of saving peoples’ lives.”