(radio and geek)

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The Herald Sun 
February 8, 1998

Office With A View
Pilot Mark Grady is the eye-in-the-sky for many Triangle commuters

Author: Al Carson; STAFF WRITER 
Edition: Final
Section: Life
Page: E1

When Mark Grady speaks, people listen - lots of people. Grady gives information and advice to thousands of Triangle residents each weekday, in the mornings and afternoons.

No, he's not E.F. Hutton. Nor is he Dear Abby.

Grady is your drive-time eye in the sky, if you listen to either Oldies 100.7 or G-105, both FM radio stations. He flies around the Triangle in his Cessna 152 from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., eyes peeled for traffic jams and alternate routes.

He's a commuter's best friend.

``I'm one of the only guys in the Triangle who can drive around the Beltline legally at 110 miles per hour,'' said Grady, who has the best of two worlds, combining his love of flying with his love of radio. He works for himself and is under contract to SFX Broadcasting which owns ``his'' radio stations, as well as WRDU 106 and Sunny 93.9.

``I'm a contractor,'' he said. ``I provide them with traffic watch service, the airborne part of it.''

But Grady is more than just a ``contractor,'' more than just a voice on the radio.

``He's my main man!'' said Walt Howard, an afternoon disc jockey at Oldies 100.7.

Howard said Grady is a funny guy, ``with a dry wit. We're like a team. We chat back and forth. I will say that when he is up in the air, it's hard to have a dialogue.''

Lester, an afternoon announcer at G-105, said he has seen Grady in action.

``We've even seen him in the airplane,'' Lester said. ``We're on the seventh floor here and we've seen him fly by and wag the wings at us.''

Lester said the crew at G-105 has asked Grady to ``buzz'' the station, ``but he doesn't actually do that. He said he values his license too much.''

Grady and Lester share a passion, in addition to radio.

``The neat part about it is that I have found another NASA freak,'' Lester said. ``We always have stuff to talk about.''

But like Howard, Lester said they don't get to talk a lot during work hours.

``He's so businesslike on the air, but when you get him off the air, he's a really funny guy,'' Lester said. ``He can get rolling and he's got one of the five most memorable laughs I've ever heard.''

For nearly nine years, Grady was the fly guy for WRAL 101.5, a job which earned him a reputation as a man who stays on top of things. He decided to leave there in January 1996 after a change in management and was grounded by a one-year, no-competition clause, which had him scrambling to make a living. While he knew he would never give up flying, Grady wasn't really sure if he would be back on the airwaves in such a lofty position.

But he is. On sunny days he flies out of the Johnston County airport in Smithfield, which is 10 minutes from his home in Clayton, and heads his two-seater for the Raleigh Beltline and outlying areas.

Crunch-time radio

Grady is in the air more than five hours a day, five days a week, spotting traffic. He has seen plenty of things from the air.

``I have actually seen accidents happen and I used to report that on the air,'' he said. ``But then a lawyer came calling and wanted me to be a witness. Now when I see a crash, I don't mention that I saw it.''

While Grady has seen traffic backed up by everything from fender-benders to multiple car crashes, he said one of the worst was a fatal accident when a tractor-trailer rig ran a car off the road.

``It was on the Beltline near the I-40 East split,'' he said. ``It was very disturbing to me, because I was driving the van that day and I happened to get there when they were taking the body out of the wreck.

``People had pulled over and lots of cars were parked beside the road and people were climbing up on the ambulance trying to get a look at the body.''

More recently, Grady said, a multiple fatality accident on I-85 near Cole Mill Road was very disturbing.

``I flew over and saw it, but it was later, when I heard the guy had lost his whole family, that it really hit me hard,'' he said.

``I have a great job and the good part is helping people get around traffic jams, but the bad part is when I see accidents where people are killed.''

Some public services

Grady believes traffic reports are a major service to listeners.

``I think it is one of the most important things on the radio,'' he said. ``I think people depend on it more than even the broadcasters realize.''

But there have been other kinds of public service Grady has been able to offer.

``One of the neatest things I get to do is monitor the police band,'' he said. ``Once I heard the dispatcher talk about a purse snatcher around Cameron Village. I happened to be right over it and I saw the guy throw the purse in the bushes and go into a building. I called it in and they got him.''

On several occasions, Grady has spotted fires and called them in.

On a funny note, he once saw a couple of cars parked in a secluded spot where a man and woman rendezvoused. Grady said it looked suspicious, so he circled around for a while and the couple saw him and left hurriedly.

``I don't know if they were up to hanky-panky,'' he said. ``Maybe they thought I was a private investigator.''

And then there was the time Richard Simmons was in the studio and talked with Grady on the air.

``I got to laughing so hard I could hardly see,'' Grady said. ``He just asked what I had for breakfast. I told him and then he started praying for me. I got so tickled I almost had to land.''

He was a talker

Talking has been a big part of Grady's life since high school, when he got a part-time job as an operator with Southern Bell in his hometown of Wilmington.

``I was one of the first male operators,'' he said. ``I did it for a few months and they offered me a full-time job. It paid so well I dropped out of high school my senior year.''

Nothing in his early background prepared Grady for where he is today -- except for talking and an experience at an air show when he ``was 5 or 6.''

``When I was a kid, I was typical of young boys in the '60s,'' said Grady, 42. ``There was something magical about an airplane flying over. I think there still is.

``My parents took me to an air show in Wilmington. It was at the Azalea Festival and the Blue Angels [a Navy precision flying team] were there.''

Grady said his father was in no hurry to leave the air show and fight the traffic (an omen?), so the family stayed and wandered around the airport, looking at planes.

``We ended up on the back ramp and one of the Blue Angels was sitting there. I was going to take a picture of it with a Brownie camera and while I was trying to get the picture lined up, the pilot came out and snapped me a salute. Buddy, from then on, I wanted to be a pilot.''

Landing in Raleigh

When Grady brought his act to Raleigh, he was flying with friends, but ``I was in desperate need of my pilot's license,'' he said. ``I went to work for WPTF radio as an announcer in 1984 and I took an occasional ride with their traffic pilot. It never crossed my mind that I would ever do it. But I thought, `This is neat, combining flying with radio.' ''

Grady got his pilot's license in 1985 and in 1987 was doing radio work for the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation. He was flying out of Raleigh East Airport in Knightdale, ``mainly for pleasure,'' when airport manager John Boney called and said WRAL wanted to start a traffic watch.

``I met with the program director and he said `We want a traffic reporter who is a broadcaster,' '' Grady said. ``I said `Yes,' immediately, on the spot. The first month I flew with another pilot and then I did it by myself.''

In about six months, Grady bought his own plane and agreed to have it painted red, white and blue. It was named Sky 101.5.

``It was a Cessna 152,'' he said. ``It's a two-seater. It's economical. It's perfect.''

Grady continued to fly out of Raleigh East and then moved to WWW Airport, south of Raleigh near Wake Tech. His relationship with 101.5 lasted more than eight years.

``I was an independent contractor, but to me, that was just something on paper,'' he said. ``I thought of WRAL as family.''

But then came changes.

A career crossroads

``The changes in management changed the whole atmosphere at the station,'' Grady said. ``I decided to leave. It was a difficult decision. I had a no-compete clause, which meant I could not do on-air service in this market for a year.''

Taking away his radio work meant loss of a lot of income for Grady. He was still able to do some work from the air, but ``it was tough,'' he said. ``I had just remarried and it was a tough time financially.''

Grady formed his own aviation company, which brought in limited income. In August of 1996, he took a job as an aviation specialist with the N.C. Department of Transportation.

It was a good job, but it still involved only one of his two passions. The radio waves still beckoned.

``I didn't know if I would ever go back,'' he said. ``But then this new company came to town and called me -- Mark Copelman was the guy.''

In April of 1997, Grady went out and bought another Cessna 152.

``I enjoyed the job [at DOT],'' he said. ``I enjoyed it so much I remained as a volunteer to do safety seminars.''

But Grady was back in his element, ready to join the ducks and geese, above the honking of manmade horns. Alone again, naturally.

``I do live reports for both stations,'' he said. ``I like it because it keeps me busy. I'm never bored. The hardest thing is saying the right radio station when I do my report. I've gotten that wrong a couple of times.''

Eye in the sky

It's a small plane, Grady's Cessna 152, built in 1978, with an airframe mostly fabricated from aluminum. While the cockpit is not much roomier than a small sports car, or subcompact, it is big enough for Grady, who usually flies alone. It has a 110-horsepower Lycoming 235 engine and cruises at about 110 miles per hour. Sky Patrol One drinks six gallons of aviation 100-octane, low-lead gasoline per hour.

``I bet 95 percent of the people I come in contact with think I fly a helicopter,'' said Grady, who has trained in copters, but has a commercial license with instrument ratings for multiple engine and single engine craft. ``But they are very expensive. I like them, but they are a whole different ball game.''

Grady flies his light craft, which is mostly wing (with a span of 35 feet), around Raleigh, usually at 1,500 feet. His plane has a transponder which identifies it on the RDU International Airport radar system. He flies no closer to RDU than five miles -- 10 miles if he is above 1,700 feet.

When he first started, being able to tell which road is which concerned Grady -- for less than a day. He can see the roads as well as (if not better than) motorists who use them.

``I can read billboards and the time-and-temperature signs on banks,'' he said. ``Do I goof sometimes? Yes. There is so much territory to cover. That's where listeners with cell phones come in.''

One place Grady has never made a big goof is in the air.

``I think the public has a misconceived notion that small planes are dangerous,'' he said. ``They're not. If you do the maintenance and are careful, they are like cars.''

Grady starts each day with a preflight inspection, walking around the plane and checking oil levels and ignition systems.

``I'm a stickler for that,'' he said. ``I've never had an accident or a violation, or anything.''

Keeping the faith

Mark Grady said there are two reasons he does what he does. One is because it combines the two things he loves best -- flying and broadcasting. The other is because he wants ``to preserve general aviation and the interest in it.''

He is a volunteer pilot for the Young Eagles Program, a national organization which ``gives kids their first airplane ride, for nothing -- no cost,'' he said. ``We had 272 kids go up for the first time in one day at RDU last year.

``With all the big airports that we have across the country, kids don't get to hear about the magic of flying,'' said Grady, who is also a news editor for Southern Aviation magazine, headquartered in Raleigh. ``In the mainstream media, all you hear about is major air crashes. There are tons of stuff about flight out there that are good.''

While airline crashes make big news, the statistics prove that air travel is very safe, compared to other modes of travel, and even other hobbies, he said.

``I think pilots' individual concern about safety is why flying is so safe,'' said Grady, who volunteers to teach flight safety seminars for the N.C. Department of Transportation and often talks to groups of school kids about his job.

When the weather is bad, Grady is grounded and does traffic reports from his mini van, using his cellular telephone to keep listeners posted.

``Kids ask if I am scared when I'm flying,'' he said. ``I tell them, `No. I'm more scared of my days on the ground.' ''

He's a busy man

In the air, Grady is dependent on his radio headphones for lots of information. Flying and looking down at traffic is the easy part.

``It becomes a little tricky,'' he said. ``In my headphones I hear the air-to-air frequency with the other traffic pilot [one other plane circles the Triangle, giving traffic reports to radio stations], I hear the radio station, I have two-way radio communication with Nicki [Morse of SFX] and the other guy [on the ground], and I hear the police scanner. And sometimes I am in contact with the tower at RDU.

``So that's four or five things going on,'' he said. ``It's a lot, but I'm able to control the volume and I'm able to mentally tune out what I'm not listening to. Just like any other job, you get accustomed to the requirements.''

While the bulk of Grady's flying time involves traffic reports, he flies for other reasons. He does some aerial photography, and once a month he flies 300 miles inspecting natural gas pipeline for the Public Service Company of N.C.

He also flies with his family -- wife Cindy, son Michael, 3, and stepdaughter Kristina, 9.

``We fly quite a bit. On my first date with my wife, I took her for a plane ride,'' Grady said. ``I flew her over Raleigh. She was noticeably nervous when I picked her up. But I was nervous trying to buckle up her seat belt without her thinking I was getting fresh.''

Pulling a fast one

Flying was not a realistic goal for Grady, but the dream of a little boy -- a dream which survived the years.

``I always wondered where I would get the money. I knew airplanes cost a lot of money,'' he said. ``I remember getting my allowance and I bought me a flying magazine.''

By the time Grady was in junior high school, opportunity was knocking.

``There was a man who worked at a service station I walked past every day on the way to school, who owned an airplane,'' he said. ``I would pass by and I would talk with him. I told him I wanted to go up for a ride.''

Well, one day, it happened. The man said, ``Come fly with me.''

``I told him a little story,'' Grady said with a grin. ``I told him my mom said it was OK. I rode my bicycle to the airport and had my first plane ride.''

Grady's mother knew nothing of the flight, of course. And once it was done, he figured he had put one over on his parents. When he got home that day, they seemed none the wiser. Then his father asked if he had homework to do.

``I said, `Yes.' And my father said, `Well, you probably want to ride back over to the airport. You left your book in the airplane.' ''

After that incident, ``I got in so much trouble, I didn't think about flying for a while,'' Grady said. It was years later before he took ``probably a more memorable ride, in a Cessna 150.''

Airways to airwaves

Grady was transferred from Wilmington to Newton, and then Gastonia, by the phone company. The move had a major impact on his life, in two ways. During this time, he rediscovered the airways and soon began an intimate relationship with the airwaves.

In Gastonia, Reece McKown took Grady up in a Cessna 150.

``The clincher was, he let me take the controls for a while and fly the plane,'' Grady recalled. ``I scrimped and saved to take flying lessons at the Gastonia airport. I soloed in 1974 in a Cessna 150.

``Not long after that, I ended up in radio and didn't have the money to continue flying lessons.''

A disc jockey with the Kings Mountain station WKNT got Grady's attention.

``I was always interested in radio, probably because my mother was such a big radio fan,'' he said. ``I interviewed at WKNT and took the job at a substantial pay cut. The telephone business was changing. It was becoming less personal and more automated. I wanted to do something I enjoyed.''

So Grady became a DJ at a station which ``played both kinds of music -- Country and Western,'' he said.

``I loved it so much, I volunteered to work all day Saturday, sunup to sundown,'' Grady said. ``People who listened would bring me lunch. There was one little old lady who would fix me lunch, but she couldn't drive, so she would get someone to deliver it to me.''

Facing the facts

But small-town radio was a world Grady couldn't afford.

``It was interesting, if you could make a living at it,'' he said. ``I would have loved to stay. There's something magical about it. And it wasn't an ego thing. All of a sudden, it was like instant friendship. I felt like I really lived in Mayberry.''

Grady moved on from station to station and job to job, learning the ropes.

``I literally took anything that was different and paid a little more,'' he said. ``I went back to Wilmington and got hired as public affairs and news director at WKLM. That's when I got interested in news.''

From there he went to Spartanburg, S.C., and then Augusta, Ga., doing radio news.

``It's typical radio,'' he said. ``There's a lot of turnover in a lot of businesses, but it's more noticeable in radio.''

Grady said he was never fired, always moving of his own accord. But he has seen plenty of reorganizing and down-sizing.

``Heck, I'm not but 5-4,'' he said. ``If they down-size me, there won't be anything left.''

During a stop in Mebane in the late '70s, Grady got back in the air again, buying an ultra-light airplane for ``about $2,000.'' He flew that plane for two years, then sold it. It was several more years before he moved to Raleigh and got his pilot's license.

This is real flying

There have been two occasions which Grady recalls as very moving personal moments in the air. One was a ride in FiFi, a B-29 bomber.

``We were in formation with two other war-birds,'' he said. ``It was a historic, moving experience.

``The other time was when I got to fly the Blockbuster Video blimp,'' he said. ``It was great fun, but it only flies at about 35 knots, so it isn't practical for spotting traffic.''

Grady wants to share his zeal and spread the word about flying.

``If you have only ridden in airliners, you haven't flown. You were in a bus,'' Grady said. ``I can see how you would think you were drop-kicked into the sky.

``With general aviation planes, there are easy, sort of majestic, takeoffs. I bet I've given 175 people their first ride in a small plane. I enjoy it. It's a legacy thing. I've never taken anyone for a ride who didn't come back and say, `That was really neat.'

``You wait for a nice day. You want them to enjoy it. And you don't try to scare anyone.

``Sometimes I feel I was born in the wrong time. I would love to be a barnstormer, flying open-cockpit planes.''

Mark Grady's worst traffic-jams-waiting-to-happen (in no particular order)

1. US 64 from Knightdale to Raleigh in the morning.
2. I-40 westbound from Cary to RDU in the morning.
3. I-40 westbound from the airport to Durham in the afternoon.
4. I-40 eastbound from RTP to Raleigh in the afternoon.
5. The area on US 70 around the airport and Westgate Road, in the morning and afternoon. 


Copyright, 1998, The Durham Herald Company

Anything that isn't already copyrighted elsewhere, copyright me 1995-2008