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I saw an article awhile back in the Sidney Daily News about expanding the airport there, and it made me think of the last time I’d been out there.

It was – wow – I just did the math and it was half my lifetime ago… I was working as a photojournalist intern for the Sidney Daily News at the time, and got a call on the pager we had from the Sheriff’s department that there had been a plane crash at the airport.  That was definitely news. At that time, I hadn’t yet been to the airport, so wasn’t sure what to expect.

The only other situation I’d seen like that was about 9 years earlier (May of 1978) of an F-106 crash where the pilot had lost an engine on takeoff, (note: the F-106 only has one engine, so this was immediately an issue), tried to steer the plane away from populated areas, which is hard to do when you’re taking off north from McChord AFB, in Tacoma, Washington.  There are no unpopulated areas there, and the pilot stayed with the plane until he was sure it wouldn’t hurt anyone on the ground, then ejected.  The plane, now pilotless, turned around and crashed into a pond in the center of an apartment complex just off the base.  The pilot’s parachute opened literally just before he landed in the middle of an intersection, and astonishingly, no one was hurt.  I got there soon after it happened, had a camera with me, but the pictures I got weren’t really much to see. The plane was close to vaporized, so it was hard to tell what you were even looking at. Some of the fuel in the plane burned, but the pilot, as I said, had been able to get out, and none of the three hundred people in the complex were even hurt.

I was hoping for something similar as I raced toward the airport in Sidney; that is, no one being hurt.  But, being a photojournalist, I was simultaneously hoping for some dramatic images.

I got there, and there was hardly any evidence of anything.  No lights, no sirens, no flaming wreckage, no plume of smoke, no Hollywood stunt doubles, nothing.  I wandered into the lobby they had there for passengers and identified myself and asked about the airplane crash.  Someone pointed me out to the runway, where I could now see a rudder and tail sticking up at an odd angle.

No one stopped me or even asked me what I was doing, they just let me go, so I walked out there and saw the result of not so much a crash, but a pretty hard landing.

I’ve been through a few hard landings.  I’ve heard that a landing is simply a mid-air collision with a planet.  I can see that, but the goal is to be a little more gentle.  In fact, the desired way to land is to get the plane to stop flying just a little bit above the runway.  I was once in a DC-8 that made a stop in Iceland where we were told the landing might be rough because of winds gusting up to 50 mph.  And sure enough, the pilot flew the approach perfectly, then stalled the plane about 20 feet off the runway so hard we thought we’d see the landing gear come through the wings.  The wings bent down so far we thought the engines would hit, then flapped up, catapulting the plane back into the air three times before it finally stayed on the ground for good.  Hard as that was on our backs, we were willing to forgive him for that because of the winds, even though it was more of a controlled crash than a landing, but when he did the same thing when we landed at Frankfurt, where the wind was about 44 mph slower, everyone but the chiropractors among the passengers were a bit annoyed.   So hard landings are just that… Hard on the plane, hard on the passengers.

Well, it turned out the pilot in Sidney was a student, and had been on her final cross country flight.  From what I was able to gather, this landing started out with a fine approach, but then ended up like that DC-8 landing, with the plane stalling out several feet above the runway, and then, instead of doing the desired gentle landing onto said runway, she smacked down into it, which, in the case of this plane, collapsed the nose gear, and the plane skidded on its nose and main gear off into the grass.

At one level I was very glad she was okay.  At another level, I was trying to figure out what I could do with the picture.  I’d walked around the crash site, gotten close enough to touch the plane, and had snapped a couple of the safe “I was there and had film in my camera” shots, just in case I could get nothing else.  I learned early on that it’s important to get “the picture” that they can publish, and then get creative.  That gave my editors a choice, depending on the other news of the day, which one to use, and which one might fit on the page.  I wasn’t excited about the safe shot, I mean, I had it, which was good, but I decided to go a little further, and thought maybe contrasting this broken airplane with one that was functioning as expected would help bring things into a little better focus, so to speak.

So I checked with the FBO (Fixed Base Operator – the people running the airport) who had just heard over the radio that there were some investigators coming to, well, investigate the crash within about 20 minutes.  Ideally, they’d be coming in that functioning airplane I was hoping for, and when I heard them on the radio on final approach, I went out to the runway to see what I could see and get into position for a shot that might be better than the other options.

I knew that by the time the plane landed and was taxiing toward me, its engine would be idling around 1,000 RPM or less, so chose 1/250th of a second for the shutter speed.  That was enough to keep any camera shake that would be magnified by the long telephoto lens down, and at the same time, be open long enough to blur the propeller blades a bit, showing some motion.

Then I just found what should be the right spot and waited.

I saw them land, and saw I was in the right spot, and just waited as they came by.  I knew I had the shot, and proudly developed the film, marking the negative by using a paper hole punch and putting a notch in the edge of the film you could feel it and find it easily in the darkroom later for printing.

I left that night, knowing I’d gotten both the safe shot, and the good shot, and hoped they’d pick my favorite, but other news got in the way, and the shape of the good shot wasn’t what they could use, so it was good that I’d taken the safe shot, which they used.  The next afternoon, I saw my picture had made page one, which was good, here’s what it looked like:

The Cessna, as published in the Sidney Daily News

But it wasn’t the shot I’d hoped they’d use.  I was frustrated at the time, because I’d done something so much better, and they didn’t publish it.  I didn’t know the big picture, I just knew I wasn’t seeing mine.

And it got me thinking…

I learned about a lot more than photojournalism that day. I learned, that sometimes, doing your job, and doing your best, may not be the same thing.  Over time, I started to understand the bigger lesson there.  You may do something at work, or something in your personal life that you really feel passionate about, and you think you’ve done a good job, but someone else is making decisions that affect you and whether your work gets recognized, or even seen.  Sometimes you can’t change that­­, and it’s best to learn from it, let the frustration go, and move on.

The thing is, I still remember the days at the Sidney Daily News with fondness, full of lessons far more valuable than any tuition could ever cover, full of people I might see once, or who I might still keep in touch with years later, and full of adventures that still make me smile.

I mean, think about it – I was driving around and taking pictures that told stories, and the pictures were seen by thousands of people every day.  I got to do things most people never get to do until they’re retired, which was the ability to go where I wanted to go,  hang out and chat with interesting folks, and tell the stories of their lives.

And I was getting paid to do it!

How cool is that?

Oh – the picture that didn’t get published?

I printed a copy for myself.

Just to prove to myself that I was there, and that I had film in the camera…

The investigators taxiing past the Cessna. (c) Tom Roush/Sidney Daily News

Tom Roush

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August 2012
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