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Lauren Sanchez-Whitesell isn’t out to change the world — she’ll settle for just the airspace.
The 47-year-old — known to Angelenos as a longtime face of morning TV on Fox’s Good Day L.A. and to industry insiders as the wife of Endeavor executive chairman Patrick Whitesell — now is charting new heights as a helicopter pilot specializing in aerial filming.
She cut her teeth consulting on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk; has filmed a commercial in the Bahamas and Los Cabos, Mexico, for high-end residential developer Discovery Land (Tom Brady and George Clooney are among its homeowners); and recently finished a flight with Catherine Hardwicke for the Twilight director’s next film, Miss Bala. It was a pinch-me moment that Sanchez-Whitesell wants more women to experience. “This space is dominated by men,” she says. “But there’s nothing physical about flying a helicopter. You can be 5-foot-1 or 6-foot-4. There’s no reason more women aren’t in this.”
The Albuquerque native and third-generation Mexican-American arrived in the pilot’s seat by way of a peripatetic path through TV: from an internship at L.A.’s Channel 13 (while studying journalism on scholarship at USC) to Phoenix to national gigs on Extra and Fox Sports and back to L.A. news as Channel 13’s 11 o’clock anchor — the first Hispanic female to hold that seat. “I was just trying to make my way; I was just trying to get through,” she says of the milestone. “I never really thought about it until people started saying, ‘Wow, this is kind of a big deal.'”
She landed in 2003 at Good Day (where she still subs as co-host), then stepped back from the spotlight for several years to focus on her family: She and Whitesell wed in 2005 and have two children, 9-year-old Eleanor and 11-year-old Evan, plus her 16-year-old son, Nikko, from her first marriage (to former NFLer Tony Gonzalez). In 2014, she moved behind the camera with Pursuit Productions, where she and co-founder Dan Friedkin developed features and documentaries — including one about pilots in World War II’s epic Battle of Tarawa. But she soon found herself pulled in another direction — skyward — by her passion for flying.
She had been learning how to fly while working as an anchor, which was not a completely left-field scenario. Sanchez-Whitesell’s father, Ray, worked as a flight instructor and mechanic who helped rebuild planes. “I was always in the hangar growing up but knew nothing about flying,” she says — save for one important fact. “I went into flight school and I had an instructor who asked, ‘So what do you know about flying?'” Her answer: “Stay away from the prop.”
Once she realized how much she loved being in the air, Sanchez-Whitesell doubled down on her flight studies. “I had my job, I had a career, and then I found a calling,” she says. “I loved entertainment and I loved filming, and so I got to combine all of it.” But pursuing this passion came with extra challenges for her. “I’m dyslexic and I literally had to put myself in a room and just cram to figure it out,” she says without a wince of shame. “They call them learning differences now, which is really sweet, but growing up I just thought I was stupid. My co-anchors knew I was dyslexic but not many more [did]. I felt like I had to hide it because it just wasn’t something that people talked about.”
She started flying planes in 2011, but getting certified as a helicopter pilot was even tougher. “I literally cried — and I don’t cry,” she reveals of a moment in the cabin when she was ready to give up while trying to steady the chopper. “You go to school for a year, take a test, then you do a check ride — you go up with an instructor, and they take you through the emergency procedures. If you lose your engine, he turns off the throttle, and you have to get down. It’s like life. It’s good if everything goes right, but if shit hits the fan, can you survive?”
She earned her license in June 2016 and formed Black Ops Aviation, partnering with Steve Safford and his Studio Wings production company. “Steve has taken me under his wing,” she says, not registering the pun, adding that Safford guided her in how to track cars and navigate specific shots required for films. Her hangar at Santa Monica Airport — not far from Harrison Ford’s and David Ellison’s — now houses her Cirrus plane and her Astar 350B helicopter, Whiskey Whiskey.
Though it isn’t her husband’s scene (“he keeps a level head about it, but it makes him nervous”), flying has become a family affair, with all three kids taking lessons. And she plans to help more women share her passion by offering a scholarship through her foundation that will fund flight education for two high school girls. “We came from nothing. I used to sleep in the back of my grandmother’s car when she would go clean houses, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a career,” she explains. “Working is part of my DNA. I enjoy it, and now I want to give back.”
She also wants to keep her feet off the ground as often as she can. “I want to be in a helicopter all the time,” she says. “Life can be so chaotic with so much going on. Lift off and you’re in an energy space that no one else is in. It’s calming. When I’m up there, I’m completely satisfied. I’m like, ‘This is where I need to be.'”
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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