There was a time, in the early 60’s, when traffic reporting became the “new” rage.
All the major Toronto radio stations were doing aircraft traffic reporting. Some were using helicopters. Wow! Imagine. Helicopters!
Down the peninsula we watched with envy as Eddie Luther on CFRB waxed lyrically from high in the sky. (Eddie got to see the BIG blackout of 1965 from high in the sky, and he knew that it wasn’t an isolated situation. He was right .. that night the entire Eastern Seaboard went dark on the evening of November 9th, 1965.)
Boy … how we wished we could fly with the big boys.
One fine summer day, Jack Hill, program director, and the news director, Bill Holland, told me that I would be doing traffic reports on Friday evenings to report on activity from Burlington to Niagara Falls. I would telling people, twice an hour, what horrors and catastrophic events were happening on the Queen Elizabeth Way, our major highway link for tourists. My heart raced. The very thought that I would be “voice from the sky” telling mere mortals what awaited them on the miles of madness, that ribbon of sweating pavement. Heady stuff for a young guy.
My heart fell. How unromantic. Here I thought that I would be up there in my bubble-shelled Bell helicopter just like the “big” guys.
That’s OK, I could spin magic on the air and no one would ever know that we were barely airborne in an aging Piper Cub. Maybe it wasn’t that old, but it look ancient to me because, after all, helicopters were what real traffic reporters used.
Turns out my pilot on “Frantic Fridays” would be none other than an old high school chum. He was in air cadets in high school and, based on his mad-cap antics, we never expected Bill to survive the “rules and regs” never mind get off the ground. But, here he was. A lead pilot for the Air Service out of Mount Hope airport.
The airport wasn’t ready to be an international or jet airport at that stage, rather a wonderful flying club and private aircraft centre. Some cargo too, I guess. I was never really interested enough to find out what the airport did. I just wanted to get over the QEW highway and report.
Well, Bill was a great guy. Welcoming, easy going and always open directions for our next report. At that time, I was using our Motorola Portable Radio with hand “mike” and earphones .. and if the weather was inclement getting the signal back to the station was often difficult … we’d have to fly over our report area and then fly back to a location where we could make contact. When I think of it now, I smile. It was a bit of a “McGiver” solution to the situation. But hey, it worked.
To be honest, for the most part traffic reporting was boring. Every Friday it was the same stuff … slow traffic between Burlington and Hamilton. (The Skyway Bridge was supposed to make it really easy, that according to officials who opened the bridge in 1958. And, to be fair, it did make a difference but the process of paying tolls backed-up Friday traffic no matter what. They finally took the tolls away in 1973. Slow learners.)
Traffic by Highway 20 was slow, traffic out near Grimsby was slow, traffic passing St. Catherines was slow .. etc. Same thing week after week. I guess it started to get a little boring for Bill as well.
One Friday as we were flying off the Niagara Escarpment and high above Hamilton, Bill asked me if I’d ever flown upside down. In a panic, I told him that was not something I ever wanted to doooooooooooooooo!
Before the words got out of my mouth, wham, we were upside down. For a moment I thought I might have an accident, but then realizing that my lower extremities were above my head I knew that better not happen. I believe I started screaming and yelling at him. I can still hear him laughing (maniacal to my ears.) After what felt like 20 minutes he flipped the aircraft back again. I requested he return me to terra firma, immediately.
I was pretty ticked with him for a number of days.
A few weeks later we were off doing our reports, and it was all the same as usual. I’ve often thought that, in all honesty, you really don’t learn anything terribly useful from traffic reports. Most often they just remind you of the pickle your in and likely to stay in for a while.
As we were concluding our reports that day, Bill asked me if I had heard about the light aircraft crash south of Mount Hope. I had heard the story and I remarked that it sounded like a very nasty crack up. Bill said, “they haven’t taken the wreckage away yet, let’s go have a look at it.” I should have said NO! But my mind said, what the heck, seeing the crash site from 1500 to 2000 feet would be no biggie.
As we flew south Bill came down lower and lower. I asked him what he was doing. He said because the crash was at the end of a farmer’s field near a small forest it would be hard to see from higher altitude. OK. Made sense. Down he came.
Now we were about 500 feet off the ground and there in front of us was a stand of trees and then the tall hydro towers running at right angles to us. Bill said … “take it easy, we’re just going to nip under these hydro lines.” Zooooom. Under the lines we went and now we were flying at about 100 feet off the ground heading for the crash site at the far end of the field.
Zeeeerooom! The aircraft passed over the site and then immediately nosed to the sky, to avoid the forest that the downed aircraft had crashed into. Zeeeerooom!
We left a few ruffled leaves as we tilted to the sky and headed back to the airport.
I was a little wobbly in the legs when we got back.
Bill was a good pilot, perhaps a great pilot but he forgot the one rule of flying (it’s very much a rule of car driving,) if your passenger is not comfortable, feeling safe and relaxed, you’re not flying/driving properly. That was one of my dad’s “driver training” lessons.
At the end of the summer we concluded our traffic reports and I was quite delighted to give up my wings. It had been a source of constant panic each time we went up. All through the week I’d be wondering what was Bill going to do this time? Anyway, Bill went on to be a successful flight trainer, I got a DJ shift, left the news department, and another chapter in my radio career came to a close.