Sometimes it better not to know the risks before you dive into an assignment.
In 1976, I was working as a reporter for WFRV-TV in Green Bay. It was summertime and that means fire season in the millions of acres of forest in the viewing area. A fire broke out in the upper peninsula of Michigan and I was sent to cover it. I got there Ok. I got the story, but I nearly didn’t make it home.
We usually worked in teams at WFRV. The photographer would handle the film gear, camera and lights. I would do the reporting, but this time I was a “one-man band”. The assignment desk arranged for me to fly in a chartered plane that would land at a small airport near the fire and then I would rent a car and get the story. It was going to be my first time in a small prop-driven airplane and I was excited.
The flight to the story was exciting and smooth. We landed at the small airport and I even shot film of the giant smoke plume from the fire as we were turning to aim for the runway. I only had a few hours on the ground to get the story and when I returned to the airport, the pilot was waiting. He was a young man about my age, early twenties with a “flat top” haircut. He was very quiet and very focused on his job. He checked out the plane and went through the safety procedures with me. I was in a hurry, of course, I had a deadline. It did not seem to matter to this young man. He asked me to sit in the front seat with him instead of in the back. He was all business.
As we took off it was sunny and clear, but he told me over the headsets that we might run into some weather as we get closer to Green Bay. It was about a two-hour flight, so I settled in and began writing and organizing my story about the fire. My mind was racing. We had to “soup” the film (develop it using a machine), and then I would edit it using a film viewer and glue. We had to make two reels, one for the video and one for the sound. They would roll at the same time on two different projectors and the director would switch between them to make the story look complete on-the-air. That is why we still call it an “A-roll” and a “B-roll”.
About an hour into the flight, the pilot said, “Ross, would you help me with something as we prepare to land”? I said, of course. He wanted me to take out my notebook and listen carefully to what the air traffic controllers were saying to him. He said, “write it all down, it’s critical”. Outside the window of the tiny 4-seater airplane it was milky white. The clouds had enveloped the plane and it was beginning to rain on the windshield. I looked over at the young pilot and his eyes were as big as poker chips. He was focusing on the dashboard and glancing out the front window even though there was nothing to see. He was flying using the instruments only. Pilots are trained to do that, and I hoped he was good at it.
Each plane has an ID number. The one I was in was N2287B. I had headphones on with a built-in microphone and I was listening for that number. It was my cue to write down the info and make sure we didn’t miss anything. That air traffic controller was our eyes, since we could not see anything inside the plane. “Cessna Nancy 2287 Baker, turn right 15 degrees and maintain heading”, crackled in my ears. I pressed the microphone button and asked the pilot of he got it. He said yes. I glanced at him and he was sweating. He never looked back at me. “Nancy 2287 Baker, you are 3 miles from the runway begin your descent”. The pilot reached over to the throttle levers and began to slow the plane down. He pointed the nose down and I could feel myself slide forward slightly in the seat. We could see nothing out the windshield. It was white. It was an eerie feeling. Then the radio crackled again and this time the tone in the voice was urgent. “Cessna N22877, what is your altitude”? and the pilot answered immediately. The air traffic controller came right back and this time I could tell he was flustered. “Make an immediate right turn and drop to 7000 feet”. The pilot shouted to me over the intercom, “Did he say 7000 feet?”. I said yes, and the pilot yanked the yoke to the right and pulled back on the throttle lever. We turned and headed down, quickly.
Now I was sweating, too. It was frightening. The tone of the air controllers voice is what scared me the most. We were clearly in danger, but we couldn’t see anything. The controller came back on the radio using our call sign and said, “you are on the same path as a jetliner coming into the airport and I need you to keep dropping quickly or you will collide.” What? I heard it! I looked out the windshield and all I saw was fog and rain. I looked at the pilot and he was pale. We both sat there waiting to be obliterated by a jetliner heading the same place we were heading.
It seemed like an hour, but it was only 4 minutes later that we broke through the clouds and fog and saw the end of the runway at Austin Straubel Field in Green Bay. The pilot aimed for the runway. We touched down and began rolling toward the hangar. I was exhausted and relieved. I asked the young pilot, “were your scared”? He looked at me and just shook his head. Then he said something I will never forget. He said, “I trained to fly by instrument, but until today I had never done it for real. That was my first time”! It was my maiden voyage in a small plane and, now I find out, it was the first time my pilot had ever flown by instrument. That is why he asked me to help him. I am glad I didn’t know that while we were still in the air.
When we pulled up to the hangar, I said thank you. We both looked at each other and started laughing. It was nervous laughter. We were glad to be on the ground.
In the few days after my crazy flight, I thought about the times in my career when I was faced with a challenge I had never faced before and I remembered the young pilot. He didn’t fail either. He did it and I was along for the ride.