“The Great Drop-Off”

wtac-copter-79jpeg

CHAPTER FIFTY-SEVEN

THE GREAT DROP-OFF

The “California Drag Chutes” were safely locked-up in our WTAC Storage Shed in back of the station. They had been a R. Nottingham Hill idea.

A few years earlier, when Evel Knieval had been big news with his “Snake River Canyon Jump” and other exploits of daring, death-defying danger, some outfit on the West Coast had come up with “California Drag Chutes”. These were little parachutes, about four feet in diameter, which could be marked with station call-letters and packed into a tiny plastic box. This package would be affixed to the rear-fender of a bicycle with a pull-ring attached to a nylon cord placed on top. The bicyclist would simply reach around, yank the ring and whooooosh, out would pop the chute. Cute, eh?
I had hated the “boys and girls” image of the  concept, but R. Nottingham had been blown-away. We ordered two thousand of the suckers and made plans to shoot a television commercial as soon as they arrived in town.

Hey, they came in!

laurie-cavanaugh-test-pilot

We brought a TV crew and a dozen young volunteer Knievals to “Derby Downs” at Southwestern High School for the chute shoot. It wasn’t pretty.

The chutes looked spectacular with our WTAC station logo prominently displayed, but they were deadly. As soon as the plastic ring was pulled, they would emerge and do anything but billow-up. We found they would invariably get stuck in the rear-wheel spokes and bring a bike to sudden collapse, rider crashing to the ground. Mechanically, you would be better off just  turning-around and ramming a tire-iron into your spinning back-wheel. It offered the same effect, without necessarily also becoming jammed in your bicycle chain, another interesting “California Chute” tendency.

Well.

It was plain we couldn’t sell the fuckers. It would even be worse giving them away. They were put in the storage shed, only because you just can’t throw away a five thousand dollar investment without hoping for a miracle somewhere down the road. We tried to reach the “California Chute” gang, but they had moved, leaving no forwarding address.

WTAC was contacted by the Jerry Lewis people and asked to participate in their 1979 Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. They were going to use a giant five acre parking lot at the local Seven-Up Bottling Plant as their Flint “drop-off point” for local contributions. They would be featured in live television coverage all Labor Day long on Channel Five. They wanted to have WTAC stage some sort of “event” which would attract a continuous crowd. Hmmmmmmmm. No problem. The thought of such massive television promotion was ultimately enticing.

Let’s see. We’ll construct a huge stage platform over an already-existing canopy at the front of the Bottling Plant. This will put all activity twenty-feet above and in front of the crowd. We’ll have banners everywhere, so anywhere the cameras move will capture a “WTAC” or two. We’ll install a twenty-thousand watt sound system and throw in a few live groups. We’ll get clowns and magicians. We’ll do our own live broadcasting. We’ll get twenty or thirty models to run around in tight WTAC T-shirts. We’ll give-away hundreds of albums and other noteworthy goodies. And.

And.

HOLY SHIT!! They said, “DROP-OFF”???

It is most unusual for a brilliant idea to suddenly appear in absolute, final, completed detail, taking  the form of a visual mental image so incredibly awesome, it almost brings sexual release.

In my thoughts, it was Labor Day. I was looking toward the sky as two thousand multi-colored parachutes gracefully danced toward earth in blazing splendor, all clearly marked “WTAC”. Television cameras were following their descent and thousands and thousands and thousands of area viewers gasped in transfixed wonder at the marvel they communally beheld. There would be millions of “call-letter impressions”. I almost passed-out.

The “Great WTAC Drop-Off” went into instant design.

We would separate all of the California Drag Chutes from their stupid plastic cases and rip-cords. We would tie onto each one, for ballast and reward, a “Jerry Lewis/WTAC Muscular Dystrophy T-Shirt”. These could be kept by whoever found themselves in fortunate possession of same. The parachutes would be DROPPED-OFF from a helicopter above at an appointed time. We would throw this whole addition into all the logistics already contemplated.

Everyone agreed I had come up with a stunning stunt. Jesus Christ, this would be FUCKING SPECTACULAR!!!!!!!

It all seemed far too good to be true. Labor Day was bright and sunny without a cloud in the deep blue sky above. Everything had been licensed and approved. A crowd of ten thousand was on hand. The helicopter was overhead. The parachutes starting coming down. Red ones, green ones, blue ones and yellow ones; their WTAC’s clearly visible on each and every one. Camera crews were everywhere. We were “live” on Channel Five. It all lasted nearly five minutes. I was paralyzed with pleasure. It had come off PERFECTLY!

YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!

It turned out there was a little, teeny-tiny element missing through no fault of our own.

Channel Twelve had been heading for the Bottling Plant when they had been temporarily reassigned to cover a traffic accident. It turned-out to be fairly minor, to their great disappointment. They had then resumed their journey to our event. They had arrived three minutes after the last chute fell. They had no video on it for the evening news. Damn! They asked if we could send up the ‘copter for a shot. You bet!

We had held back about a hundred parachutes as souvenirs. We could take about fifty and pitch them out. What the hell? Bob Vanderweil asked if he could do the tossing. Why not?

I mentioned that it was important he not throw them out all at once. A handful at a time worked best. We had discovered that if you tossed more than a dozen at a time, they tended to “ball up” and wouldn’t properly open. Got it? Yeah!! Vanderweil climbed in the helicopter with our box of parachutes and up they went.

I can still see the horror a frame at a time.

The helicopter rises above the Bottling Plant and hovers at two hundred feet. Vanderweil is standing in the doorway with the box of chutes. Overcome with exuberant enthusiasm, he overturns the box. The chutes fall in a clump. They drop only thirty feet and then begin rising, caught in a powerful draft of wind. They are moving directly toward the rear rotor-blade.

THHHHHHHWAAAAAAAAAAAAAACCCCCCCKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!

There is a crack louder than a lightning strike. The rotor-blade had been snapped and disintegrates. The helicopter starts to spin completely out of control. It quickly starts to buck upward and downward and rapidly plummits toward an adjacent empty field to the right of the Bottling Plant. It  partially brushes the ground, bounces twenty feet into the air, and violently crashes again. It appears to completely fall-apart in a blinding cloud of dust. Metal pieces are flying everywhere. People are screaming. Staff members are shouting. I run toward the scene, my heart pounding and head bursting in anticipatory shock and sorrow. The ultimate nightmare has come under a burning autumn sun on the clearest of days in the most terrifying of ways. In my mind’s eye, the face of death grins with dark delight. It had all taken less than ten seconds.

Absolutely no one was injured, but the helicopter was totally destroyed.

We had pulled a former Marine combat pilot for our mission. He had been shot-down three separate times in ‘Nam. In the luck of the draw, we had been dealt an incredible, winning Ace. As soon as the rear rotor-blade went, trained instinct had taken over. He knew how to gain just enough stability with the aircraft to pick a spot and get there fast. He had cushioned the final twenty feet of fall with practiced precision.

I couldn’t help but hug and kiss Vanderweil and the pilot. It was a major miracle.

Naturally, Channel Twelve had incredible footage. It went network on ABC.

A Flint Journal photographer took a classic picture of the downed helicopter which was released nationally through the Associated Press. It was a frontal shot which perfectly captured a bumper sticker I had thoughtfully applied to the bottom base of the machine much earlier in the day . The bumper sticker read, “WTAC”.

I called Joe Windsor at home and reported the incident, describing it as a “unexpected hard emergency landing due to unanticipated logistical complications.” The fact that I had obtained permission for the exercise from all appropriate governmental agencies, including the Federal Aviation Agency, was all he needed to know.  That, along with the no injuries”report, put his mind at ease. Official investigation later defined the incident as “accidental”. Even the “clumping” effect of the parachutes was irrelevant. A random wind gust had been the culprit. The Gods laughed, but had not killed. It was the last helicopter promotion I would undertake. For awhile.

My next heart-stopper came in early November.

It was not uncommon, as I walked around the WTAC complex, to occasionally stop at our United Press International news machine and review incoming stories. It was an old announcer”habit. It was nothing short of remarkable that I happened to wander by the machine at the exact time a story with the heaviest personal professional implications broke on the wire.

It was a bulletin out of Atlanta, Georgia. It announced the pending sale of all Fuqua Communications broadcast properties. Although the primary focus was on Fuqua’s television stations, it also referenced WTAC in Flint. I had no idea a sale was even being considered. What the FUCK?

I tore the story off the printer and raced to my office. I called Joe Windsor. He was astounded. I sensed he was also blind-sided. He asked me to read the story again. He said he’d call me back. Minutes later, he did. There were complications.

Although the story said that the Fuqua stations had been sold, actually only the television stations qualified for this description. The two radio stations, WROZ and WTAC, were now up for sale. I knew the whole thing had to really blow for Joe. The announcement effectively sounded taps for the entire Communications Division. At least I might have a bit of borrowed time before my future was so clearly evidenced.

Part of my job responsibilities now involved helping to peddle the station and potentially put myself on the unemployment line. AM stations were now not the hottest action around. FM was where the smart money was headed.
I assisted in putting together appropriate materials for prospective buyers.
They certainly weren’t going to be lining-up at our door, wallets in hand.
A number of potential players came floating though. Some were serious and most merely curious. They were all handled with courtesy and attention. One could never know.

Joe Windsor called on a Tuesday afternoon. He had set up a meeting for me with someone looking for a more powerful AM facility in the Flint area.
WTAC’s northern signal also appealed to this new prospect. He liked to hear his stations while traveling. He was a multi-millionaire with serious intent.
I was to meet the following afternoon in Brighton, Michigan with Frazier Reams, Junior; the owner of WWCK-FM. I  would again be calling on the competition. This time they held the check.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: