The Golden Age of Traffic Reporting

An "Eye in the Sky"?

airplane illustration
It was a different time.Philippe Lechien

To paraphrase a line from The Lone Ranger radio series, “Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear! From out of the past comes the thundering sound of a Cessna 150…Barney flies again.”

This goes way back to the olden days—before radio and TV stations employed drones and live traffic cams to report real-time tie-ups and accidents during rush-hour traffic. So far back, in fact, that residential telephones in some areas were still on party lines (ask your grandma or Google “party lines” if that doesn’t compute). It was the 1960s, and we were a pretty close-knit group, mostly in our early 20s, hanging out at the airport. A few were from wealthy local families and could afford to fly for fun; others (like me) were eking out a living flight instructing. After all, this was a time when the only requisite for being an official “expert” was a logbook with those magical 200 hours and a passing grade on the FAA’s CFI written and practical tests.

At the going rate of $5 an hour for dual given—measured only when the Hobbs was running—instruction didn’t include much in the way of preflight briefings or post-flight discussions. You hustled the student into the airplane and held off on conversation until you got the engine running. But those were also days when life was pretty simple; I was in fat city if I made $100 a week, paid no more than $100 a month for an apartment and had enough left over for food and gas for my Volkswagen Beetle.

It seems odd now; these were the dynamic, volatile 60s when young guys were being drafted to fight a dreadful war in Vietnam, there was huge social and religious upheaval, protests and rioting—even in usually staid Cincinnati. While many young Americans were burning flags and draft cards, listening to the Beatles and Crosby, Stills and Nash, I was oblivious to anything that didn’t involve airplanes. My future husband, Ebby (30 years my senior), and I had been engaged a couple years earlier after I came home from a stint as a Trans World Airlines hostess. But the big day was delayed, and I learned that an ex-girlfriend and his grande-dame mother were intent on sabotage. So one night I deposited the rather large engagement ring on his living room table (in tears, of course), cranked up my VW and headed back to my tiny digs. Somehow, during all this, I finished my last year of college—thanks to a loan from my big sister. Ebby and I would remain close—sometimes more, sometimes less—and eventually marry 10 years later.

I’m sure there were heartaches and worries—I kind of remember a long line of boyfriends and constant ­worries that I might be pregnant—but you know how the years soften bad memories. This airport gaggle of friends frequented an Italian bar and restaurant called the Greenwich Tavern in nearby Walnut Hills where you could get a huge plate of spaghetti and meatballs and a mug of dark beer for $2! Hal Shevers had just launched Sporty’s, was ­driving a Studebaker Lark and sharing a horrid bachelor pad we called “The House of Bad Dreams.” Paul Smith, an elderly but young-at-heart and full-of-fun businessman, owned an Aztec and would usually pick up the tab; my best friend, a gay—something we never talked about—doctor who owned a Comanche, a Champ and an AT-6, taught me about flying, cooking, taking life less seriously and a treasury of naughty limericks.

Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes

Another in this gaggle of friends was a wonderfully fun—and funny—guy named Mark Barnett. Barney, still young but of tremendous girth, had somehow scored a real flying job doing those new “eye in the sky” ­rush-hour traffic reports for a radio station in Lexington, Kentucky. So he moved the hundred miles south, lived in a small apartment and, for an hour every weekday morning and ­afternoon, would squeeze himself into a little Cessna 150 for live broadcasts.

Barney was sincere and reliable...but something of a sound sleeper.

Early one winter morning the station newscaster called his apartment when the new pilot didn’t check in by telephone as usual before takeoff. It was something of a crisis because Barney had slept through the alarm clock and was due to be on the air in 15 minutes. Now, automobile traffic in 1968 Lexington, Kentucky, wasn’t really “news” at any hour but having live airborne traffic broadcasts was a major selling point with advertisers who bought time on radio stations. The morning was crystal clear so they couldn’t claim he was grounded by weather, and there wasn’t time to get himself together, to Bluegrass Field and airborne for the scheduled reports.

“So hey, Barney, by now you know the bad spots. Like that 1-mile strip with all the traffic lights on Nicholsville Road from Man O’ War to New Circle, the area around west Winchester, Alexandria to Harrodsburg, and oh, yeah, that crazy double-lane roundabout that everybody screws up. Do you think you could…uh…like…you know, just kind of ad-lib the traffic? There are no games at UK until this afternoon so we could do it over the phone. I’ll patch you in every 15 minutes.”

“Yeah, I guess that’ll work. But hey, man, I’m on a party line here. So to be safe, we gotta keep the line open for the hour.”

Well, it worked…at least for a while. Barney said that occasionally somebody would pick up on the party line and, at first, quietly hang up when it was obvious the phone was in use. But then, as the hour wore on, the sound of the hang ups became increasingly pronounced…going from clicks to bangs. His party liner was losing patience, becoming irate and finally incensed. As I remember the story, at some point, as Barney was graphically ­describing a tie-up at some traditionally difficult merge, the party liner picked up, breathed heavily into the phone for a few seconds and finally shouted, “Hey, buster, how in the hell long are you planning to hang on this telephone?”

I don’t remember the outcome—whether he kept the gig or went on to other more lucrative and ­prestigious flying jobs. I just remember him telling us the story one night at the Greenwich Tavern…and laughing with Barney until tears streamed down my face into my plate of spaghetti.