Tuesday, March 20, 2007

How It's Made: Airborne Traffic Reports

I enjoy watching the How It's Made shows on the Discovery Science channel, which is in my opinion one of the better kept secrets of the high century channels on our local cable. Although every topic is fascinating on the How It's Made show, I especially enjoy seeing how things that I am a consumer of are produced. Being as the show is focused on the manufacturing of tangible products rather than services, though, it's highly unlikely that they will ever share the secrets about a product of which I am an avid consumer.

What product might that be? Ok, that's obviously a rhetorical question given that the answer is right there in the title of this posting but yes, I am an avid consumer of traffic reports. I'm so hooked that I listen to them even when I'm not going anywhere, just to see how all of the other poor bastards are doing in their daily commutes. On days when I am driving, I pay rapt attention to every word, hoping to glean the reason behind the three mile long, completely immobile line of cars in front of me. With a nominal 30 minute trek, a good day has me on the road for slightly more than an hour. It doesn't take much of a disruption in the flow of the traffic to cause snarls that endure well past when my already limited patience has run out, though. Hence my abject attention whenever and wherever a traffic report comes on.

The reports can frustrate as well, I must note. Oft is the reported accident within spitting distance of my current location, but naught is to be seen. The converse happens equally often: I'm sitting in the aforementioned highway quagmire wondering just what the hold up is this time (knowing full well that the odds are in favor of yet another over-turned tractor trailer - something about Columbus highways causes trucks to go belly up like Cuyahoga River catfish) but the traffic report is completely mute on the topic of my delay.

So, I had decided on a quick flight after work today and was just passing through the gates on the way to the hangar when I saw an acquaintance of mine preflighting the Sunny 95 (scroll down to Sgt. Bill Taylor) airborne traffic reporting plane. I run into him now and then and always exchange waves. He often mentions how much he enjoyed ferrying my Tampico out to Los Angeles for me after I sold it, but today was a little different: he told me that he was preparing to fly the evening traffic reporting flight and asked if I'd like to ride along. Surprisingly, I actually had to think about it for a few moments. On the one hand, I was very curious as to how the traffic flights are conducted and would enjoy riding along to find out. On the other hand, it was a nice clear afternoon and an energetic flight in Papa Golf was very attractive. Fiscal responsibility won out and I opted for the free ride. Having planned on recording some Helmet Cam video, I had my camcorder with me and figured I might get some good video while we orbited the city.

Decision made, I grabbed my spare headsets from the hangar and squeezed myself into the back seat. The pilot would fly from the right seat, and the traffic observer would fly in the left seat. The switch from the normal seating arrangement of the pilot sitting in the left seat is to allow for the observer to have most of the action on his side as they work their way counter-clockwise around the I-270 outerbelt. I shared the back seat with a piece of equipment far more critical to the process than me: a foot and a half tall stack of radios.

One radio was used to communicate with the Sunny 95 radio studio, while the other was used to get accident reports from the police department. I think the remainder of the stack might have been a power supply, but I was reluctant to get anywhere near it. Were it to fail, I would want to be as far removed from the blame zone as possible! We were off the runway by 4:30 and made our first turn to the east. Sgt. Bill had gotten an update of current traffic conditions by phone just before takeoff and he wanted to check out a report of a situation to the east. We climbed to 2,000' and headed out over the city. That was a new experience for me - you may remember that when I wanted to get video of downtown that I had to climb to 5,000'. The view from 2,000 is a heck of a lot better than it is from nearly a mile high, as you can probably imagine.

As we headed east along I-70, it looked like everything was moving along quite well. Just as we reached the Hamilton Rd. exit, we saw a couple of cars stopped in the middle lane, and I marveled at the gyrations of the unfortunate drivers that happened to be stuck behind them as they tried to inject themselves into the moving streams of traffic to either side of them. "There but for the grace of going to work really, really early...," I thought to myself as I watched their struggles from on high. We made one 360 over the accident, then kept going east to check out another report. One thing I couldn't help noticing was that there didn't seem to be any hurry to communicate any of this to the radio studio, and thence via radio to some poor schmuck that still had a chance to take an alternate route and bypass the whole mess. I suspect I might empathize with that unknown (and possibly non-existent) fellow more than the average traffic reporter, though.

Eventually the observer started a countdown: "Coming at you in five.........(five seconds later)......three..two..one..Yes Dave, we're out here over Reynoldsburg (we weren't - we were already headed back to the west) where there's a bit of a backup on 270 to I-70 west. There are half a dozen cars off to the side in the deadzone (the hash mark painted area where McDonalds bags and Budweiser cans go to retire) but the backup goes well north of Main St." He also mentioned the first accident we had seen. He obviously has been doing this for a long time as his patter was very well polished. He ended with "This is Sgt. Bill Taylor, reporting from the Sunny 95 Sky Bank Yellow Thunder." Of course, being as it was a lowly Cessna 172 we were riding in, a plane most resoundingly not known for having any semblance to thunder, I found that moniker to be somewhat amusing. With my status of being a guest and all, I'm sure you'll understand why I refrained from commenting on that to my hosts, BanterAmptm that goes all the way to 11 notwithstanding.

Can't you just hear the thunder?

We cruised around for a bit more than an hour, the whole operation going like clockwork. They do this twice a day (weather permitting) so the communications with Columbus Approach and Don Scott (KOSU) tower were nearly rote. They have a permanently assigned squawk code and the route they fly is roughly identical each and every time. Port Columbus (KCMH) is a bit of an elephant in the room, though. There are certain areas where the traffic plane can't fly without causing potential conflicts with airliner traffic flying into and out of the big airport, so there are certain pieces of highway that are essentially left to fend for themselves. You guys that have to use I-71 between downtown and the Ohio State campus: I'm talking about you. You know, just in case you ever wondered.

On the way back to Bolton, I learned one of the best kept secrets of this gig: they cheat! As we were entering the right downwind to runway 4, the observer called in two more reports to the radio station to be recorded and played back between 5:00 and 6:00. In fact, I was already home drinking a brew (required to deaden the assault on my eardrums from the currently playing Celine Dion song) when the last one came on. That was kind of freaky! I had heard it through my headsets while it was being transmitted, with me sitting right behind the guy sending it, and here I was at home listening to it again on the radio station with a cold one in my hand. I guess it's not much different than seeing a TV show recorded or a movie filmed, but it was still felt a bit weird.

So, you're no doubt thinking by now, where are the pictures? Remember that rule I made about never flying without my camera after missing shots of a Mig-17, B-17, and countless other really cool things? Well, I remembered it too, but like Simba in the movie The Lion King, I deliberately disobeyed it. After all, what of interest could possibly happen during a short flight around the neighborhood?

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