Chopper 8 Surf Check

Every morning, Jason Austell checks the entire San Diego coastline for surf-each and every spot from Imperial Beach to Oceanside. Often more than once. And he gets paid to do it.

Austell, 36, is the reporter/cameraman for Chopper 8, the aerial news JetRanger helicopter owned by KFMB, the CBS affiliate in San Diego. But more importantly, he’s a surfer. And Austell’s job gives him a pelican’s-eye view of San Diego’s surf. With much of the morning news revolving around the I-5 traffic corridor, Austell flies up and down the coast from 6 to 9 a.m. reporting on breaking stories, monitoring the morning commute and checking out the conditions at Windansea, one of his favorite spots.

“When nothing is going on, I try to show the surf conditions; you can only show so much backed up traffic,” explains Austell. “I don’t give away specific names of spots, but most knowledgeable San Diego locals know which waves I’m shooting just from the surrounding topography. Surfers are stoked. I have people thanking me all the time for showing the surf.”

Austell cruises around in the ultimate surf-scouting vehicle. After his morning check, Austell has between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. to reap the benefits. “I always know where the waves are best, and uncrowded,” he says. “I’ve flown over perfect A-frames with no one around. I’ll make a mental note of it, and be on it by 10.”

Of course it’s not all aerial surf checks and mental note taking for Austell. The serious side of his job can take its toll. From bank robberies to car accidents to meth tweakers commandeering tanks, Austell experiences the lunacy up close. “The heaviest experience was the Oceanside chase a few years ago,” Austell explains. “Some poor old man wouldn’t stop for the police, a chase ensued, and it ended in a horrible high-speed collision. Chases come and chases go, but this one stands out because the moment the accident occurred, I thought somebody died. Fortunately no one did. But it was violent.”

Even more reason to hit the surf: stress relief.

But Austell’s surf checks 300 feet up aren’t his only connection to the surf scene. Chances are, if you’ve seen the 90’s cult classic surf videos Tear Devils II or III, then you’re already familiar with some of Austell’s camerawork. All the aerial shots are his. The feather in his cap: the footage of red-hot San Diego ripper Seth Elmer from the cliffs above Black’s.

So next time you’re surfing in San Diego and you see the Chopper 8 JetRanger buzz by, chances are it’s Austell, and he’ll probably be joining you shortly.

Scott Bass