My brief reporting career in small planes

Posted by Dan Barkin on November 1, 2013 

Today in the Washington Post there is a story out of Virginia about how the gubernatorial candidates there are flying around the state, a lot of times in smallish planes.

I could relate to this story because 32 years ago, when I was covering the statewide campaigns in Virginia for the old Norfolk Ledger-Star, the afternoon paper that doesn’t exist anymore, I had to fly with candidates.

I remember my first flight vividly, because it scared the fool out of me.

I was not one of the paper’s top political reporters in the fall of 1981. In fact, I was the equivalent of a minor league call-up from the Virginia Beach bureau. (”I’m just glad to be here and hope I can help the big club.”) I was assigned to cover the attorney general and lieutenant governor candidates.

My first day on the trail had me connecting with the Republican attorney general candidate at National Airport. Wyatt B. Durrette Jr. was, at the time, a 40-ish member of the House of Delegates, a successful lawyer, and a VMI graduate. So he wasn’t afraid of anything, being a VMI guy.

We were going to travel by air together to some event somewhere. I think it was in the Shenandoah Valley.

After I met with Durrette at the civil aviation terminal, we got on a very, very small plane. This was the one that Piper Aircraft sold at Wal-Mart, I think. The pilot was a friend of Durrette’s, or a friend of a friend, or a friend of a friend of a friend. In politics, at the state level, you are often getting on planes flown by people even the candidates may only barely know.

When we took off from National, we were like this (Imagine the palm of my hand at a 75- degree angle.) The pilot flicked some switches and buttons, and while we were still in steep ascent, bouncing around the vast air space over the Potomac River, he turned around in his seat and began a lengthy and animated conversation with Durrette.

Durrette was in the back of the plane with me and our luggage. The pilot -- his name was Buddy or Shorty or Lefty, something like that -- was not looking a bit where we were going.

And neither he nor Durrette seemed to think anything about that.

Now me, I was paying very close attention, my head on a swivel, peering out the front windshield, checking out the side windows. I was looking like crazy for that 747 Heavy inbound from Stuttgart with two tired pilots and 300 passengers that was going to cross our path and produce my obituary. I was less than three weeks from my birthday, and did not at that point expect to clear 28.

Fortunately, and obviously, we reached cruising altitude without incident.

My other aviation memory from that campaign was my one and only ride in a helicopter. There were three choppers flying the Democratic candidates into the coal fields at night. I was in the attorney general candidate’s chopper, third in this airborne convoy.

All you could see in the gloaming were the fires of open-pit coal mines. It looked like we were descending into Hell.

The Democrats were flying into the coal fields because the coal mine operators had a lot of money, and the candidates were coming to get it. Willie Sutton only went into banks because that’s where they kept the money, and politicians only went into the coal fields for the same reason. Far southwest Virginia didn’t have many votes or amenities; it did have coal money.

Our chopper landed on a pad on a hilltop, and we got into a Bentley that this particular homeowner/coal magnate kept at the bottom of the hill just to run people from the helipad to the house. A Bentley.

We overnighted in a guest house on the property that had one couch, no bed. Me and the attorney general nominee, Gerald Baliles, flipped for it, he won, and so he got the couch and I got the floor.

Baliles’ luck held several weeks later, as he beat Durrette. Four years later, he became governor, beating Durrette again. By that time, I was an editor, which I liked because it didn’t require flying.

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