Saturday, April 02, 2005

Fear and Loathing at Final Approach

“Pittman, Airport Alert! Can you roll?”

It was less of a question than an order. Still, I couldn’t help but mumble under my breath as I grabbed my keys and rose from my desk. Spotting a fellow photog across the newsroom, I shot him a tortured look and he chuckled, happy it was my turn for a Nantucket Sleigh Ride and not his. I stormed past him like a doomed sailor.

“Three vosots on the stove and now I gotta chase this crap?!?”

“Settle down, Francis” he said, “You’ll never make it.”

Yeah, yeah. Just because he was right didn’t make it any less inconvenient. Thirty seconds later I was still grumbling as I climbed behind the wheel, cranked the engine and threw my news unit into reverse. ‘What I would do for a normal job sometimes‘, I thought as I tore out of the TV station parking lot.

'Beautiful disaster...flyin' down the street again...I tried to keep up...'

As my old 311 CD played in the background, I hurtled down a highway by the same name. Setting my cruise control for just a few miles over the speed limit, I drummed the steering wheel and wondered how long it would be before I was turned around, for the only thing more certain than an impromptu balls-to-the-wall airport haul is that the desk would call you off of it before you were made it halfway there. So it was with great smugness that I answered my cell phone before it could even ring a second time.

“Stew - this is the real deal - DC-9 comin’ in on one engine”, the night assignment editor sounded resolute and firm, much the same way he did when discussing his NCAA brackets. “Proceed to Runway 2. Keith’s behind ya in a live truck.”

%#$@&*! I hit END on the cell phone and resisted the urge to throw it into the dashboard. Instead I looked at my watch and grimaced. 3:50 pm...if this was indeed the real deal, the unwritten stories back on my desk were about to become the least of my concerns. Rather, I’d be camped out as close to the smoking remains as I could get - squinting through a viewfinder and no doubt going LIVE(!) with all the sordid details. It was nothing I hadn’t done before but that didn’t mean I wanted to repeat the grim task - especially on a day when I promised the wife I’d get home in time to help her with a neighborhood cook-out. Then again, I thought as I took the exit ramp to Highway 68, is there ever a good time for a plane crash?

Somewhere above me a passenger stowed her tray in the seatback before her and peered out the plane’s window. Piedmont Triad International Airport lay below amid the gently rolling landscape of Guilford County. Just south of the Interstate exchange, a grimy white Ford Explorer with garish logos raced for the airport, it’s weary driver wondering where in the hell Runway 2 was.

I should have known, but as I fumbled through my center console for an airport map, all I came up with a box of orange Tic-Tacs. I was fishing one out into my palm when the cell phone rang.

“Stew - Airport’s rolled all their emergency vehicles on the tarmac. Try the West Market entrance!”

I could hear the fuzz and crackle of scanner traffic behind the night guy, who sounded a bit tweaked out himself. Breaking news can do that to as fellow. Heck, I was growing a little frazzled myself, turning down my music and taking the West Market turn-off a bit too quickly. As discs and map books slid across my cluttered cockpit, my photog’s mind went to battle stations. Camera. Check. Disc in chamber. Check. Tripod. Check. Scanning the rear view mirror I checked my gear and avoided looking at my watch. As the last remaining two miles stretched out before me I gripped the wheel and thought about the players in motion…a half-crippled aircraft losing altitude, a nighttime assignment editor high on static, a crusty photog who just wants everyone to get home on time.

Closing in on the airport’s perimeter, I gunned the engine and visualized the next ninety seconds. Screech up to the fence and throw the cam on the sticks. Scan the horizon and above all else roll. Be in position to get lucky before the security goons try to kick you off the property. I was capturing award winning footage of the plane’s final approach when the cell phone beside me rang.

“Uh yeah, Stew - the aircraft landed without incident…”

Cursing under my breath, I whipped the SUV into a tight u-turn. Several hundred yards behind me the DC-9 taxied around the runway, it’s pilot and passengers blissfully unaware their potentially disastrous plight had almost made a Dad-slash-Broadcaster late for dinner.


Billy Jones said...

Dude, you had me smelling airplane smoke! Great story.

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