Mike Nolan

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Michael Nolan was born October 24, 1949, in Van Nuys, Calif. His first flight was in a PSA DC-4 out of Burbank, Calif., and he was hooked instantly. He learned to fly in late '68 while he was a student at L.A. Valley college, soloed on March 1, '69, then earned a two-year degree from Fullerton College and studied at the Don Martin School of Broadcasting in Hollywood. He got his first job as a deejay at KTRT in Truckee, Calif., in September of 1973, and that led to other deejay jobs in northern and southern California. In 1979 he was working in radio sales at KTHO in South Lake Tahoe, which had had a program called Skywatch, featuring a schoolteacher/pilot who would fly for an hour on summer mornings and report on road repair projects. Mike got the program going again and flew traffic watch over the ski areas on weekend afternoons. He used a tape of the ski area reports to apply for a real traffic job in San Jose, and got it. The station changed formats and fired the staff less than a year later, and Mike went to KOY in Phoenix in 1981. KFI's traffic reporter Bruce Wayne was killed at Fullerton in June of 1986, and Mike decided that if KFI was going to replace Bruce, he might as well apply for that job. He got it, and has been with KFI-AM and KOST-FM for nearly 16 years.

Five days a week Mike lifts off in a Cessna 182 -- N640AM -- just before 6 a.m. and joins 13 other media aircraft -- plus whatever law enforcement aircraft are flying -- around and under the LA Class B airspace. Mike likes to fly at 1,900 feet over the City and the [San Fernando] Valley, and bumps up to 2,100 feet to cross into Santa Monica from the Hollywood Hills. With just a glance out the window he can spot breaks in the traffic, then he looks for what's causing the break. He doesn't use a timer for his reports -- like many veteran broadcasters and announcers he has a "built-in clock." He broadcasts four AM and four FM traffic reports per hour until 9 a.m., then he lands, refuels, fixes any squawks, has lunch and a nap, and launches again at 3:45 PM for the afternoon shift. On his current schedule he logs about six hours a day, 30-some hours a week, 1,500-some hours a year, which -- added to his pre-LA-area flying -- adds up to about 28,000 hours. He holds commercial helicopter, instrument airplane, and commercial airplane ratings. Mike's work has been recognized by the City of Los Angeles, the California Highway Patrol, and he won a best spot news award in Arizona for covering an emergency landing at PHX. He also spent six years in the Marine Reserve -- 1969 to 1975 -- and was honorably discharged as a sergeant. Mike lives with his wife of 23 years and their 13-year-old son in Corona, Calif.

  Dick Rutan and Don Madonna form up with Mike's Bonanza on a celebrity cross country race from Oxnard to Palm Springs.

Do you remember your first interest in flying?

I remember it distinctly. All my life my family has gone to San Francisco for Thanksgiving, because we were the only southern California wing of the family. We usually drove, but one year -- when I was seven or eight -- we weren't able to drive and we scraped together the money to fly there. We loaded into a PSA DC-4, and I was a little apprehensive, especially when we did the runup and that airplane was bucking and shaking. We were flying out of Burbank, and as we turned onto the runway I could see the railroad tracks on San Fernando Road. We rolled down the runway and when we got about three or four feet in the air I realized something real special was happening. I watched the terminal go by, and the other runway, and a train going by on Empire Avenue, and the buildings got smaller and I was in love with flying. From that moment on I couldn't hear an airplane go by without looking up.

When did you decide to learn to fly?

I always thought I couldn't afford it. I was in the flying club at LA Valley College, and the club got a great deal at Van Nuys airport. Normally dual was $14 an hour, solo was $10, and the club had a deal for dual at $10 and solo at $8. I decided I could afford that, I took three lessons and the place went out of business. I had a really good instructor, and when he moved to an outfit in Hawthorne called Progressive Aviation, I stayed with him. I wound up driving to Hawthorne and paying the same amount I would have paid anyway, but once I had started, nothing was going to stop me.

Did you want to be a commercial pilot?

It was never an option for me. I was too blind and too dumb. I only had a two-year degree and my eyes were horrendous -- about 20/400. Now I've got perfect eyes because I've had the surgery, but now I'm too old and too dumb.

I started in late '68 and got my private on March 1st, 1969. I trained and soloed in a 150. No TCAs, no transponders -- you'd take off from Hawthorne, call LAX tower and go right over the top at 2,000 feet. It was a different world. I got checked out in a 172, and then a Cardinal -- but still not doing much flying because I couldn't afford it. I had ridden with Captain Max [Shumacher] when I was in junior high school and after Max was killed I rode with my mentor Jim Hicklin from KMPC Airwatch several times. Jim got me a checkout in a Cherokee but I didn't do a lot of flying for the next ten years. I got into radio in 1973, and by the time I got to Lake Tahoe in '78 I hadn't flown in a long time.

A brief Who's Who, with thanks to Don Barrett and Los Angeles Radio People

  • Captain Max Schumacher was KMPC's helicopter pilot/traffic reporter from 1900-66 and was killed when two helicopters collided over Dodger Stadium on August 30, 1966.

  • Jim Hicklin was KMPC's helicopter pilot/traffic reporter from 1966-73. On April 2, 1973, Jim was killed in his stateroom aboard the cruise ship Princess Italia moments before the ship was to sail on a vacation trip to Mexico. He was killed by a crazed listener after broadcasting where he was going on vacation. KMPC aired his funeral services live.

  • Bruce Wayne was KFI/KOST's pilot/traffic reporter from 1968-86, and died in a crash on takeoff from Fullerton Airport, June 4, 1986.

How did you begin reporting on traffic?

I had been in radio for about six years, and had done a little bit of everything in radio. I had been a deejay in Truckee, had worked in an automated station in Orange County, and had worked as a deejay in a little station in Corona. By '79 I was in radio sales in Reno, then in Tahoe. They had a program called Skywatch, and it was everything but traffic. There was a schoolteacher who would fly for an hour each day in the summertime, giving the weather and talking about the work the CalTrans had scheduled for the day. I got the program going again with me as the pilot, flying for an hour every morning in the summertime. I wasn't getting paid, but I was getting experience. I covered a fire on the North Shore, and covered Glen Luckey -- who was a gentleman suffering from muscular dystrophy who rode a three-wheeler all the way around Lake Tahoe to raise money for the Jerry Lewis Telethon.

That winter I had an idea. I proposed flying traffic watch on the weekends, because when the big ski resorts closed for the day the traffic around them was horrible. I still wasn't getting paid, but I was getting experience and building a reel. A friend of mine went to work for a station in San Jose, and told me they weren't thrilled with their traffic reporter, so I sent my tape, they made me an offer, and in the summer of 1980 I went to San Jose at KXRX-AM and KSJO-FM. A good joke at a party would get a bigger audience than we had at KXRX. They just couldn't compete with the San Francisco stations. In March of '81 the news team got fired, and I survived that cut, but by June I had been fired, too, so that job didn't even last a year.

I applied for an opening at KOY in Phoenix, then sent me an airline ticket, I flew there for the interview and they made me an offer that day. My wife and I were both born and raised in California, so moving to the desert was a bit of a change, but we both fell in love with the state. I stayed there for five years and along the way I got my helicopter rating. I was doing audio-only traffic reports for a TV station in Phoenix, and my idea was to move into TV news. Then Bruce Wayne had his accident.

Tell us a little bit about Bruce Wayne.

"The legendary Bruce Wayne" is not overstating it. He and Lohman and Barkley were legendary in LA radio in the late '60s and early '70s, and they were KFI. By the '80s that format wasn't doing so well, and in 1986 Lohman and Barkley broke up. Two months later Bruce Wayne crashed on takeoff at Fullerton airport and was killed instantly. A week after that the manager of the radio station had a heart attack and died. KFI was shell-shocked. I was doing well in Phoenix, but I wondered if I was really good enough to work in LA. My wife and I talked it over -- we were kind of homesick for California at that point -- and I decided to apply for the job. Again, they sent me a ticket, I flew out for the interview, they made me an offer that day and we came back to LA.

How did you get up to speed on covering LA freeways?

I got in touch with Pamela McInnis, who was then flying for KMPC Airwatch, and Chuck Street, who to this day flies for KISS-FM, introduced myself and asked how I could do my job and not get in their way, and they showed me the ropes. They told me the right frequency to use, told me to stay on the right side of the freeway, and off we went. KFI held a press conference on August 11, '86 -- the day I started -- and Pamela and Chuck were there, and we've been great friends ever since. Chuck and Pamela are pilot/reporters, and 95% of the other aircraft are being chauffeured by pilots trying to build time, as opposed to pilot/reporters that are working professionally. Just about the time the chauffeurs figure it out, they're gone -- probably to the airlines -- and I can't tell you how many people have come through the revolving door in the last 16 years.
  left to right, KNBC TV-4 traffic reporter Paul Johnson, LA Mayor Tom Bradley, KFWB traffic reporter Rhonda Cramer, Mike Nolan, and "Commander Chuck" Street from KIIS-FM.

And 16 years ago there were no sensors in the roads and traffic cams. How has that changed things?

There is no substitute for looking out the window and describing what you see. An example happened this morning. There was a crash on the northbound Golden State Freeway. The left lane was blocked with two trucks trying to clear the crash, and with the left lane blocked, there was heavy traffic in the other lanes. I passed the information to Chuck Street, and he passed it to our colleagues on the ground. They disputed the information because the cam told them there was no slowing, but there was plenty of slowing on the northbound Golden State. Nothing is more accurate than looking out the window.

By the same token, something might happen as soon as I turn my head away, and I won't see it. I've looked at a certain portion of a freeway that was moving, and thirty seconds later someone gets sideways and there's a multi-car pileup and I'm flying away looking for traffic.

Why do you like to fly an airplane instead of a helicopter?

The airplane is faster and more efficient. The only disadvantage is the weather. Helicopters can fly under any cloud they can squeeze under, and I've got to stay 1,000 AGL. But that's the only disadvantage. I cover a lot more ground than anyone else.

Tell us about your custom headset and the radio setup in the airplane.

My primary two-way radio is a Motorola, and I receive that in one ear. In the other ear I have a small hand-held scanner with an external antenna and it's monitoring the CHP frequencies from the Mexican border up to about Santa Barbara. In both ears I have the airplane radios and the radio station radios. Since KFI is a talk-radio format, we're on a delay, so I monitor KFI using a dedicated IFB [interrupted foldback] frequency that gives me the radio station real-time. There's an FM radio in the panel for KOST, I have a built-in push-to-talk on the yoke for the airplane radios, and a velcroed push-to-talk for my two-way, and two microphones on the headset.

For some reason they've changed the FM signal, and now I hear the FM broadcast with about a half-second delay after I speak. It's mildly annoying but I've learned to deal with it, and the people on the ground at Airwatch have the same situation.

Two .wav files of Mike reporting on the afternoon commute

And you don't use a clock to time your broadcasts?

Part of the dissatisfaction with the fellow that I replaced in San Jose is that he didn't know when to stop. On that job I had to meet a network schedule, so I had to do exactly 30 seconds and I used a watch. When KFI had Phil Hendrie in the afternoons we were in a network situation and sometimes they needed 37 seconds, sometimes 40, so I used a clock to give them exactly what they needed. Currently we're in a more free-form situation and I use the clock in my head. It goes off after about 40 seconds, and I know that's when to wrap it up.

How do you plan where you're going to fly on any given day?

I have no set routine. If there's a major problem, that'll be my number one priority. Sometimes I'm a pinball, bouncing from one problem to another. If nothing major is going on, I just search for whatever's out there and I'll wander around from Orange County up to the Valley.

There are several towers that I can approach from different directions, so I try and approach so that I'm not a traffic conflict for them and I try and standardize my request. For instance, there are several ways to transition at Burbank. If I fly east to west down the Ventura Freeway I will set off the TCAS of every jet coming off Runway 15. I can avoid that by flying the northbound Golden State to the southbound Hollywood, and I can still see the Ventura Freeway without actually flying over it. Eventually the controllers appreciate that I'm trying to stay out of the way, and when the time comes that I need to get in the way to see something, they're willing to work with me.

The airspace north of Hawthorne is Class B, so you can really only approach from the east or southeast. I fly through there every time, so it has gotten to the point with a couple of the controllers where I can say "Good morning Hawthorne, you know who is you know where for you know what at 1.9," and they'll respond "Approved, 640AM."

  May of 1988, at the Jim Hicklin Memorial Air Rallye. Mike and Scott Reiff, who at the time was the pilot for KABC's Jorge Jarrin, and who now is a pilot/reporter for KABC TV-7 and KLOS radio.

What kind of weather keeps you on the ground?

A really bad winter storm, where the bases are low -- five to six hundred -- and the tops are high -- 15,000. There's no place for me to go. If there's a morning marine layer and the bases are high enough, I'll fly below it. If I can't get under it, I'll file and get on top and talk to the helicopters down below. I get better reception on the scanner, and when the marine layer burns off I'm back to normal. Occasionally a storm will blow in from west to east during the afternoon, and I'll just go where I can, and if things get bad enough I'll land. I can't get a signal out on the ground at Corona, so I'll usually go to Fullerton, finish the reports, and file IFR to get back to Corona.

Have you had any emergencies or unscheduled landings?

I've landed once at Fullerton and once at Hawthorne. I didn't declare an emergency either time, but the airplane was running rough enough that I decided continuing was not in my interest, and it turned out to be cracked cylinders in both cases.

Which is the harder shift, morning or afternoon?

The afternoon is much more intense, both in the air and on the air -- on our common frequency. All the police department and sheriff ships are up, the corporate ships are up, and that's the end of my 13-hour day. That's why I try and take a nap between shifts. Not that I won't fly without one, but I think being alert in the afternoon is part of the reason I've been able to do this continuously for 22 years.

Do you ever break into programming with a traffic emergency?

Rarely, but it has happened. The most recent example is a real bad crash on the Long Beach Freeway when a big rig heading northbound destroyed the center divider and crossed into the southbound lanes. That shut the freeway down with a fatality, and I got the newsroom to break into Bill Handel's show so I could report it.

Tell us about some of your more memorable sights.

I was on the ground in Phoenix when a Republic jet made an emergency landing, after ingesting most of its right main tire into one of the engines, so he had a gear problem and an engine failure. They foamed the runway and my description of the landing won best Spot News in Arizona. Over 16 years in LA I've covered fires and floods and civil disturbances. The day the Rodney King riot broke out was a beautiful, clear day, and I was west of downtown -- around La Brea -- and the smoke was rising from the buildings just like the pictures of Kuwait when they set the oil fields on fire. That's what it looked like on the first day. When I had my Bonanza I was flying low along the 605 one morning and balanced perfectly on each wingtip was the setting full moon on my left and the rising sun on my right. There's no way to take that picture, but it's pictured in my mind. I've seen 747s fly out of a cloud over downtown LA and leave a huge cavern behind them as the wake turbulence carved out the cloud.

All my life I've admired people that really have command of the language, like Paul "Panther" Pierce from KMPC Airwatch. I don't have that talent, but I try, and one time when I felt I had some success at it was during the tremendous rains of El Nino. When Topanga Creek flooded it put a lot of people out of homes and stranded many other people, right at Pacific Coast Highway and Topanga. I was amazed at how much force was coming down the Santa Monica mountains and I said something like "Normally unopposed, the waves of the Pacific Ocean are being challenged by the force of the water from Topanga Creek."

Were you flying during the O.J. chase?

No, but I've got a story about it. That was not only a Friday afternoon, but it was my last Friday afternoon before going on a two-week vacation. When I go on vacation the airplane goes into the shop for its annual. So when I landed I pulled everything out of the airplane -- headsets, maps, everything that's not bolted down. As I'm driving home I hear that they've found O.J. I could have gone back to the airport, put everything back into the airplane, taken off, and flown to where he was just to find out that he had already been stopped, but I thought "They're not going to let him drive all the way to Brentwood!" I had my cellphone with me and the station didn't call, so I watched the whole thing while having beer and pizza.

What has changed since September 11th?

Aside from strongly worded TFRs, I'd say nothing has changed. It took a while to get to this point. I couldn't fly at all for two weeks, then I was doing traffic reports IFR.

How did you do that?

  afternoon slowing on the Southbound 5 after someone gets sideways
I would file from Corona to Burbank, climb to 6,000 feet, see what I could see on the way, land, file to Fullerton, climb to 5,000 feet, see what I could see on the way, land, file to Hawthorne, see what I could see on the way, land, file somewhere else if I had to, and file back to Corona. The SOCAL controllers were very, very helpful. I did visual approaches into El Monte that took me way out and around, so I could see several freeways. Then we had enhanced Class B, which left me the inland empire, Orange County and the San Fernando Valley. I was fortunate compared to some other markets -- Phoenix, for example. Their enhanced Class B pretty much shut them down.

Right now the only lingering change is very strongly worded TFRs over big events -- the Academy Awards, for instance -- and I expect that to continue for a while.

How can a pilot train to do this job?

Essentially I'm a dinosaur. Being a pilot/reporter is a fading profession, because they can pay a pilot minimum wage and he'll take the job to build time, and there aren't many opportunities to do what I'm doing.

They can pay a pilot and a reporter and still come out ahead?

KFI is a union station and however you might feel about the politics of unions, that's how we operate and that's not how other stations operate. I'd like to see this profession come back, but the trend is not promising.

When I was a kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley, if John Wayne and Captain Max were standing side my side it would have been a tossup to me who was the bigger celebrity.

If you had to choose between radio and flying, which would you pick?

I'd pick flying. I love radio, but I'd pick flying. I will never not fly. My son will get my airplane, and maybe he'll give it to his son, and maybe it'll have 19 million hours on it, but I will never not fly.