Captain Kirk And The Eye In The Sky

by Stu Simpson

The voice on the car radio sounds like it came from a program director’s wet dream; smooth, polished and well projected. The only thing less than perfect about it the continual “whop-whop-whop” in the background. But that can’t be helped.

“RCMP and fire crews have begun clearing that major accident involving a semi-trailer on Highway 1, just east of the city limits. Traffic is flowing normally again and is no longer being re-routed onto Highway 1A. So it looks like the road won’t be closed until nine o’clock after all. Elsewhere, motorists can expect normal delays and buildups on their way into work this morning.

“For Cantel AT&T, I’m Captain Kirk in Calgary‘s ooonly traffic helicopter, Chopper 960.” And so begins another morning rush hour in Canada’s third largest city, a place where people are hopelessly addicted to their cars.

Captain Kirk, whose real name is Al Molnar, has been guiding drivers through the snarling maze of Calgary’s morning and evening rush hours for the past eight years. He’s one of the lucky few who’ve been able to combine two of the greatest loves of his life – radio and flying – into a profitable career.

Molnar works for Rogers Broadcasting, a communications giant that owns radio stations CFAC 960 AM and CHFM 95.9 FM. The AM station operates on a country and western format, while it’s higher frequency sister puts out light rock and easy listening tunes. The FM operation bills itself as “Lite 96” (in radio, you can say you’re located at 96 even if you’re really at 95.9). So depending on what your musical tastes are on any given morning, Molnar is either in “Chopper 960” or “Chopper 96”.

Chopper 96/960 is actually an immaculately kept Robinson R22 that flies the two stations’ colours. Molnar, who has his fixed wing commercial ticket, doesn’t fly the helicopter. He leaves that to Jess Henderson, a pretty and professional Vancouver transplant. Molnar’s just the voice these days, but it wasn’t always that way.

In The Beginning

Al Molnar started in radio back in the mid 80’s in Lethbridge. As often happens in that business he got a break a few years later and moved to a bigger market in Calgary. By 1990 he’d convinced the powers that be to have him up in the air in a Cessna 172 doing rush hour traffic reports. At the time there was one other station in Calgary also using a Cessna for the same purpose.

Doing traffic reports alone in the Cessna was remarkably stressful for Molnar. “I’d be in the middle of a report,” he says, “while the tower would be constantly breaking in with instructions. And this was all going out over the air.”

In the extremely competitive world of big city radio, having even a slight edge is a major advantage. Molnar went looking for his edge. Soon, he decided to switch to the Robinson.

By using the R22 Molnar could accurately claim to be in “Calgary’s only traffic helicopter”. It was all he needed to shut the competition down. “The other station’s fixed wing operation folded almost immediately,” he says.

The Robinson gave Molnar the ability to be in the air more often since helicopters can operate at lower weather minimums. He could also get closer to the ground; YYC‘s controllers allow Chopper 960 to perch at 1000′ AGL, and to occasionally dip down to 500’. In the Cessna, Molnar was restricted to 1500′ all the time.

The lower altitude now allows him to get a better look at what’s going on, to see exactly where trouble is, and exactly what it is. And, of course, he’s got Jess Henderson to worry about the flying, other air traffic and the tower. That leaves him free to concentrate on getting out the traffic reports.

The Helicopter

Vancouver Helicopters actually owns the Robinson that Henderson and Molnar use. Henderson started flying for the company in Vancouver four years ago doing the same type of work. The daughter of an RCMP officer, she studied criminology while earning her helicopter pilot’s licence.

I chatted with her one morning as she pre-flighted the R22. I asked her what she thought of the Robinson. “Do you mean sometimes, or all the time?” she smiled. She went on to say how the R22 gives her fits in strong and gusty wind conditions. “It’s too easy to over-control,” she reports. Nonetheless, she labels the R22 as a good and very reliable helicopter.

Henderson exudes professionalism from the instant one meets her. She’s got 2300 hours under her belt now and is looking forward to her future. “I want to fly some bigger equipment, like that,” she says pointing longingly to a Jet Ranger across the hangar.

Tired of minus 40 degree winter mornings, she also wants to get back to Vancouver. “They fly a lot more out there. Here we can be grounded for up to a week at a time with fog, snow or chinooks.” On such days Molnar takes to the streets in a vehicle, while Henderson finds something else to do.

A Typical Day

Molnar and Henderson arrive at YYC, where the chopper is based, each day at 6 A.M. Henderson readies the helicopter while Molnar gathers intelligence on what’s already happening on the city’s roadways. He taps his sources within the police department, with transit, and with the streets department. He also monitors other radio stations that broadcast traffic information called in by their listeners.

Over the course of the next hour Molnar uses his cell phone to file five live and taped reports for the two stations outlining what he knows. Then he trots out to the ramp where Henderson is ready to fire up the Robinson. They’re airborne at 7:00 sharp.

The next two hours keep both of them hopping. Henderson’s constantly negotiating with the the controllers while trying to get Molnar close enough to the action that he can, at the very least, use binoculars to assess a situation. Molnar uses a cell phone wired into the chopper to file live reports every ten minutes on FM, and every twenty on the AM dial. There are also a few that have to be put to tape simply because live hits won’t fit conveniently into the show.

They’re down again by 9:00 a.m. But at 3:00 p.m. they meet once more to repeat their ritual, taking to the sky an hour later.

Molnar and the controllers have agreed to divide Calgary into three areas to make things easier for everyone. The tower might clear the chopper to operate in Area 1, for example. That means Molnar and Henderson have pretty loose clearance to cover the west side of the city.

The other zones are Area 2, taking in the east and southeast parts of town, and the Northwest Corner, which is self-explanantory. Molnar says in the eight years he’s been doing this he’s been allowed over the northeast only once. The northeast end falls right beneath the approach path for the airport’s runway 28.

Calgary International’s location also causes another major headache for the chopper crew – Deerfoot Trail. Deerfoot is Calgary’s major north-south freeway, running the length of the city. Sadly, for Molnar and Henderson, anyway, most of Deerfoot lays beneath the airspace south of runway 16/34.

Thus, several important factors come into play. Deerfoot Trail typically has the highest volume of traffic during rush hour, coming almost to a standstill at times. 16/34 is YYC’s equivalent to Deerfoot, being the busiest runway at Calgary. And don’t forget, the airport’s volume is such that Calgary ranks as the third busiest airport in Canada. Frankly, it would seem anyone who gets clearance to occupy the airspace between the heavies and the ground has been granted a miracle.

A Reluctant Star

I asked Molnar why this job appeals to him so much. “I’ve always loved working in radio,” he replied, “but I never wanted to get into the ratings battle. I just wanted to do a good job without all that pressure.”

He’s proud of the fact that what he does sometimes makes a real difference. People regularly approach him to say thanks for his help up there. He also has a police radio in the chopper and often assists police units by providing traffic accident information and by spotting the occasional fleeing criminal. But mostly, Al Molnar just helps the average guy get to work in the morning, and back home at night.

Molnar figures it’s not such a bad way to make a living. After all, he gets to be a radio star, however reluctant, and he gets to go flying in a nifty little helicopter with a very pretty pilot. True, this Captain Kirk may not have the Enterprise, but he’s definitely got it made.