Railroading, Helicopters, and the Morning Newscast: The View from a Locomotive Cab

A railroad crewman sure puts a different spin on the morning traffic report. Locomotive engineer Doug Riddell tells two helicopter stories--one almost cost him his job.

A Passenger Train Journal reader once suggested that I submit a script to the TV networks for a situation comedy about my experiences on the railroad, because after reading my columns, he was convinced that there was certainly 'a cast of characters" from which to pick and choose. Looking back on my railroad career, I would definitely have to agree, although while their tales do provide the basis for some interesting short stories, I'm not sure that the material would sustain a weekly television series.

Of course, every situation comedy is the result of a creative spark, usually from the interactions between the cast and an unusual central character in reaction to an often overworked gimmick.

Imagine, if you will, a college educated television and radio announcer giving up his profession to become a railroad brakeman and, later, an engineer. No, that idea would probably never fly in Hollywood. But there have been those who have done just the opposite—celebrities who began as humble railroaders. In his youth, Michael Gross, star of TV's Family Ties, worked as a fireman on commuter trains into Chicago. He once shared the cab of an F40 with me on the way to Pittsburgh when I was the engineer of Amtrak's Capitol Limited. After he told me he still remembered how to cool down an overheated E9 (by jamming open the radiator shutters with a fusee and blocking in the radiator fan relays to bypass a faulty thermostat), I knew he was for real. I gave him my official Capitol Limited hat as a memento, which I'm sure occupies a place of honor in the Gross household.

Does anyone remember working with a brash young brakeman on the Santa Fe named Don Imus? I'm sure I have left out other notables who also belonged to the fraternity of the flanged wheel.

In my own case, I actually juggled two jobs—the railroad and the radio station—for almost a year before I had to finally choose between them. During the day, I was a yard brakeman for the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad in Richmond. At night, I sat in the glass-windowed studios of WRVA AM (a 50,000-watt NBC affiliate, heard across the country) on a hillside immediately overlooking Richmond's Main Street Station and the very rail yards I'd worked in only hours earlier. Thinking back, I don't know how I managed it.

How and why my dual careers ended is legend with my coworkers. Whenever there is an old-timers' gathering, or when it's mentioned to new hires that I used to be on radio and television, someone will inevitably laugh heartily and say, 'You ought to hear the one about the helicopter and the day Doug had to quit the radio station." In truth, I continued performing both jobs for some months after the incident, but it makes good copy, good sense, and after all (as I like to joke with my family about some of my columns) it's just good use of poetic license.

WRVA was (and remains to this day) a Richmond institution. Top-rated morning personality Alden Aaroe coaxed Virginians out of bed for nearly 50 years—a record unparalleled anywhere in the business—until cancer silenced him in 1993. Always the innovator, the radio station began broadcasting morning and evening rush-hour traffic reports from a helicopter in the 1950s. In the summer of 1976, in addition to my duties as host of the evening 6 to 10 p.m. show and as the station's commercial production director, I began substituting for the regular 'trafficopter" reporter, Tim Timberlake, our 10 a.m. to noon personality.

In May 1977, I began working for the railroad. Being a good railfan, I took along my trusty Canon FTb whenever I was airborne (and once or twice, a Sears 8mm movie camera). I can assure you, few buffs could come up with the camera angles, or witness the sights to which I was privy from my gyrating perch in the sky. Add to this the fact that I flew out of Byrd Airport's Hawthorne Aviation hanger, located next to the C&O main line, and I was figuratively and literally as close to railfan heaven as anyone is going to be.

Our pilot, the late Willie Windham, was in the Army's first vertical flight class. He flew experimental helicopters in WWII, Sikorskys in Korea, and Hueys in Vietnam. When he was at the stick of our classic 2-place Bell 47 chopper (the bubble type featured on M*A*S*H), you knew you were in good hands. Since he was addicted to, and chain-smoked pack after pack of unfiltered Lucky Strike red dots, Willie and I soared through the otherwise clear blue sky of central Virginia enveloped in a hazy white cloud of tar and nicotine, alerting motorists to potential snarls and backups in Richmond's gridlock business district and on its ever expanding system of expressways, which served as arteries channeling the lifeblood out of the rapidly decaying downtown core—a sad fact of life in most medium- and large-sized cities.

Out of concern that something might happen to him while we were airborne, Willie taught Tim and me some of the basics of helicopter flight. (Amazingly, years later I was to discover the same principals of balancing propulsion and retardation would come in handy when I began learning to handle freight and passenger trains.) In return for his insight, I taught Willie what I knew about railroading after I took the job with SCL. Soon, he too began to see a pattern and could readily predict that within 10 minutes of the Amtrak Silver Star's departure from the Staples Mill Road Station at Greendale, it would be crossing the James River and begin interrupting homeward bound motorists at the crossings at Jahnke and Broad Rock Roads. The clouds of gray smoke from the stacks of black-and-yellow SCL GE U33Bs at Acca Yard meant that within 10 minutes traffic would be halted where a long, descending east-route train would cross Hermitage and Brook Roads and eventually foul 7th and Hospital Streets.

Many of Richmond's traffic tie-ups in fact resulted from long, slow-moving freight trains that blocked so many of the city's main thoroughfares at grade, especially during rush hours. Southern Railroad's daily local freight, returning from the small paper mill town of West Point, swaggered into 'Dodge" for its daily showdown with motorists in the heart of the business district at peak afternoon rush hour. While it may have thrilled ardent railfans to see a pair of green or black and gold Alco RS-3s in charge of a seemingly endless string of empty pulp wood racks, chip hoppers, and loaded boxcars, trailed by a bright red bay-window caboose, it elicited quite a different reaction from the stockbrokers, bankers, and secretaries whose retreat to the Chesterfield County suburbs across the James River was abruptly cut off at the north end of the 14th Street Bridge. The late Howard Bloom took it all in stride. A trafficopter predecessor, who was killed when his chopper (manned by a substitute pilot) lost its tail rotor and crashed into a building on W. 31st Street, Howard used to chuckle when he spied the lowly local approaching the world-famous triple railroad crossing at 17th and Dock streets (C&O/SAL/SOU). In his deep, resonant radio voice he'd calmly announce, 'Well folks, pull up a chair and sit a spell, the 5:15's right on time."

There was quite understandably a great deal of friction between the city fathers and the railroads over this touchy subject, fueled by irate commuters who frequently flocked to the convening of City Council, demanding that something be done about the problem. They found an ally in one council member from the East End, who had to regularly cross both C&O and Seaboard tracks on Hospital Street before climbing 7th Street Hill to reach City Hall. If it wasn't a through freight, he'd be blocked by a yard engine or a passenger train. The angrier he got, the hotter he became, and the higher on the railroad's pecking order he would call to vent his frustrations.

I had just qualified for through freight service as a brakeman in early summer of 1977 when Willie and I hovered over the former Seaboard Air Line's Brown Street Yard in Shockoe Valley, in the shadows of Richmond's downtown business district, during Alden's morning show.

'He don't seem to be moving. Look at that backup on Brook Road." Willie pointed to a stalled northbound SCL freight train. Taking another drag on his Lucky, flicking the ashes out of the open cockpit door and down onto the general population below, he exhaled and added, 'He couldn't have picked a worse time, just before eight o'clock. I'll try to get closer and see what's going on. Maybe he's struck a car at a crossing or something. I'll call the police. They might need help."

Another voice crackled in my headset. 'You've got a report for Shoney's [restaurant] coming up after this 30-second Curles Neck Dairy spot. Keep it fairly short; John's [Harding, our news director] heavy at eight o'clock, and he wants to come back to you for a quickie after the lead story. It appears that there's some train tying up everything coming in from the North Side and East End," Alden Aaroe added. 'You got anything on it? Oops, stand by."

'We're one minute away from the eight o'clock news with John Harding, but first, let's check on your morning commute downtown with Al Douglas [my air name] in the WRVA trafficopter," Aaroe's thousands of faithful listeners heard him announce. 'This report is brought to you by Shoney's Big Boy Restaurants. What's going on, Al?"

On cue, my mouth went into gear before my brain was engaged. 'Well Alden, our listeners can forget using 7th or Hospital streets inbound from the East End. It looks like the engineer on No. 120 has jerked that train into three pieces, and it's strung out from Brown Street Yard all the way up the hill to Hermitage, blocking the crossings at 2nd, St. John, and Brook Roads as well. You can hang it up for at least the next hour, ‘cause by the time those boys finish tot'n knuckles [coupler parts] it'll be lunch time. You'd be wise to consider an alternate route this morning inbound from the East End and North Side. This is Al Douglas from the WRVA trafficopter, now this from Shoney's."

Willie turned away from the sun as we headed upriver to check out the series of bridges that connect Richmond with its south side. Inbound traffic was normal for a major population attempting to move across a wide river basin over seven bridges—jammed. I noted the major backups and listed them on the writing pad strapped to my knee.

'A disabled freight train is giving rush-hour commuters a real headache this morning. Here's more from Al Douglas in the WRVA trafficopter," John Harding said.

'When a train separates," I explained as a good, knowledgeable railfan, 'the brakes go into emergency, and the train is stalled until it can be recoupled, the air lines charged up, and the brakes released. It's going to take a while to put this SCL freight train back together again and get it out of the way of motorists coming in from the North Side and East End, so use I-95 or I-64 as an alternate route. The backup at the toll booths may be a real pain, but believe me, they're nothing compared to what you have in store for you if you're waiting for that train to move."

Rush hour lasted for just an hour in the morning and evening in 1970's Richmond, Virginia. I made three or four more reports, and then Willie turned the bird into the sun as we chased an eastbound C&O coal train up the hill to the airport. We were preparing to land when ground control came on the air.

'Doug," Alden called out, 'when you put down at Hawthorne, call a Mr. Robertson at this number. He says it's vitally important."

As I copied the phone number down, I scratched my head and wondered who Mr. Robertson was. The name was familiar; a listener or a client, probably.

'Is he someone with an ad agency that wants me to do some voice work?" I asked Aaroe.

'Didn't say. Just said it was urgent."

Just as the yellow steel caboose of the C&O coal train passed under the road's signature cantilever signal bridge at Charles City Road, the occupant of the cupola waved to us, while Willie spotted the Bell-47 perfectly on the rubber tire equipped transfer wagon on which it would be moved inside the hanger. Before removing his headset, the old warrior killed the engine, reached inside his jacket pocket, tapped out the only unfiltered Lucky that remained, ignited it with his worn Zippo lighter, drew a deep lung full of smoke, exhaled, nodded his head with satisfaction, and proclaimed, 'Mission accomplished. I was just about out of smokes. I was scared they'd hold us up there to watch that damn train."

I rushed into the Hawthorne Aviation office to use the phone. The classic old Hawthorne hanger with its rounded-arch roof has appeared in many movies, most notably substituting for Dallas' old airport terminal in the feature film Love Field, as well as A Woman Called Jackie and the TV mini-series Kennedy. As airports have expanded, old hangers of this type have become extinct.

As the rotary dial clicked, I scanned my memory, trying to come up with a clue that would lead to the identity of this mystery man named Robertson. When the voice on the other end answered, I was left with no doubt.

'Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, Robertson speaking," a gravely voice spoke.

'Doug Riddell, Mr. Roberston," I answered cautiously, 'May I help you?"

'You damn sure can, son," my trainmaster responded in an instantly agitated tone. 'You know, it's bad enough we have to take all of that crap about blocked crossings from the radio station, but we shouldn't have to take it from one of our own employees! This is the same Riddell who just came to work for us as a brakeman, isn't it?"

'Yes, Sir," I gulped, startled and afraid I was the same Riddell who was about to be fired.

'Being a big time radio personality, I assume you already know the mayor of Richmond?" he asked stormily.

'Yes, sir," I responded, my throat going totally dry.

'Well, I was just introduced to him and spent 15 minutes on the phone apologizing to him for the traffic jam this morning caused by one of our freight trains, No. 120. I think you identified it on the radio. The mayor was caught up in the traffic on Hospital Street, listening to the eight o'clock news on WRVA, when you talked about one of our trains being ‘in emergency.' He thought there was some kind of hazardous material spill or danger to the public, called the president of the railroad in Jacksonville from his car phone, and chewed on his butt for a while, until the president explained that it was just a railroad term and that there was no impending disaster of any kind."

'Oh," I said.

'Well, Jacksonville called the division superintendent in Rocky Mount, who called the superintendent of terminals in Richmond, who called me. Do you know what it's like to have just sat down at your desk with a fresh cup of coffee and a doughnut on a beautiful, warm, sun shiny morning like this, and have your ear torn off by your boss because he's had his talked off by his boss?" Robertson asked. 'The coffee's gone cold, the doughnut's stale, and I really don't have the stomach for them any more."

'Well," I answered slowly, tugging at my shirt collar as I chose my next few words carefully, 'I think I'm beginning to get the picture pretty well, sir."

'You know, Mr. Riddell," I heard his old wooden office chair creek in the background, 'I don't have anything to do with your choice of careers, but if I were you, I'd damn sure decide right now whether I wanted to work for the railroad or stay in broadcasting. The next time you identify one of our freight trains by number on the air as a cause of a traffic jam, or in any other way embarrass this company, I'll make that decision for you!" When he hung up, the click was deafening.

As it turned out, a few months later, when the offer was made by the radio station for me to become the regular trafficopter reporter and midday air personality on WRVA, I was forced to make that decision. I left broadcasting and never looked back.

'You're a damn fool," my program director told me when I announced my choice. 'We're going to pay you $175 a week plus talent! This is the most visible job in broadcasting in this city outside of Alden Aaroe's show. Do you know how many people would kill for this opportunity you're turning down?" (A 24-hour round trip to Florence, South Carolina, as an Amtrak trainman paid $180 at that time.)

Oddly enough, with the exception of an occasional reunion at some of the radio stations I once worked, and an invitation by Passenger Train Journal reader and NBC cameraman Jan Kassoff to attend a dress rehearsal for Saturday Night Live, I've never been back in a broadcast studio, although I have since had one very memorable encounter with a helicopter.

Firing Amtrak's northbound Palmetto for SCL engineer Rob Yancey one day in the early 1980s, I was at the throttle of a roaring F40 when we left Rocky Mount, North Carolina, heading for Richmond. Something on the track ahead caught my attention as we rounded a long curve north of the small community of Battleboro. The doubletrack main line dropped through a swamp at that point over a series of wooden trestles, where it was customary for us to check the accuracy of the engine's speedometer between mile posts 112 and 111.

'Good God!" shouted Rob, jumping from the fireman's seat. 'Shoot'em! Shoot'em! There's a helicopter on the tracks."

Shoot'em is railroad slang, at least on the railroad for which I worked, meaning apply the emergency brakes. Depending upon the section of the country where a railroader is employed, the common expression may be 'put ‘em in emergency, dump'em, big hole'em," or something else, but the meaning and the tone leave no doubt that there is a life-threatening situation requiring immediate action to stop the train. When the brake valve is moved into the emergency position, all of the air is exhausted at one time, resulting in a loud noise that sounds like a cannon—thus the origin of the expression 'shoot'em" on SCL.

The odor of the train's wheels being flattened as they burnished the surface of the rail head added a horrifying element to an already frightening predicament. That smell permeated the cab of our train while Rob and I watched in horror as we lurched and bucked toward the ancient, yellow, Korean War Sikorsky helicopter that sat on the nearest wooden trestle, blocking our path. It would have seemed a natural reaction to ask what a helicopter was doing perched on the railroad tracks, but we were too afraid to say much of anything. Our thoughts were more directed to how we were going to survive this imminent collision that would likely derail our train and pour the locomotive, baggage car, seven coaches, hundreds of passengers, and crew of nine into a snake-infested swamp as I pulled the horn handle repeatedly to get the attention of the pilot.

Just as it seemed that my wife was going to get to collect on my Travelers life insurance policy, the big yellow bird jerked, lifted, and cleared our train. Drawing closer, I could see that a large chain had been suspended from the chopper, wrapped around a number of huge tree trunks. The force of the quick lift-off broke the chain and spilled the logs into the marsh below, forcing the workman collecting the wood to dive into the water with them.

'Emergency! Emergency! Emergency!" I screamed into the radio. 'This is No. 90, and we've put the train into emergency to avoid hitting a helicopter at milepost 110."

'SCL north-end dispatcher Rocky Mount to No. 90," Lee Horace Joyner's concerned, high-pitched southern drawl boomed, 'I've got you protected in both directions. Is everyone okay?"

'We're all right on the engine," I panted. 'I'll check with the train crew. We missed him. He took off at the last second."

'I thought you said you almost hit ... well, it sounded like you said you almost hit a helicopter?" Joyner asked. 'What kind of helicopter?"

'A big yellow one," I responded.

'Would you repeat that please?" Lee Horace asked.

'A big yellow one, like the ones the Army flew in Korea," I told him.

'You were in Korea?" he seemed confused. 'You don't look that old."

'No," I said, 'It's the type they show in those Korean War movies."

'You know they're gonna drug test you if anyone hears that you put a train in emergency to avoid hitting a big yellow Korean War helicopter on a bridge in the middle of a swamp, don't you?" he responded, semi-seriously. 'Then they're gonna put you in a straightjacket and send you over to Dorthea Dix Hospital in Raleigh."

'SCL roadmaster to the north-end dispatcher," came another voice. 'I believe Mr. Riddell is referring to some people that asked for permission to log for ash wood in that area; but they were given strict instructions not to foul the right-of-way until they called the railroad and had someone from the roadway department on hand to flag for them. I'll take care of this. Mr. Riddell is not hallucinating. He did see a big yellow Sikorsky helicopter."

I saw it many times after that incident sitting beside the hanger at the old Rocky Mount airport, right across from the Hardee's hamburger headquarters building on North Church Street. Other than to have it removed from the property when the airfield was converted into an athletic playing field, it never flew again. The railroad pulled the contractor's permit to log on SCL's right-of-way because of the near miss.

Rob Yancey and Lee Horace retired shortly thereafter. Alden Aaroe, Willie Windham, and trainmaster Robertson have passed away, but both stories about me and those helicopters never die down. Twenty years later, I was sitting in the crew room at the Richmond Amtrak Station, preparing for my daily run to Washington, when the CSX yard crew working an adjacent industry walked through the door to use the telephone to call the yardmaster at Acca. The conductor was Dean Polly, with whom I had worked one of my first days on the railroad at Brown Street. The remainder of the crew was originally from C&O and RF&P.

'See that fella there," Polly laughed and pointed to me, almost swallowing a big wad of chewing tobacco. 'He used to be a big radio celebrity before he came out here to work, but he had to quit broadcasting when he started railroading from the WRVA trafficopter. Ain't that right, Ry-dell?"

Sure, Polly. Why should they think anything different than everyone else who's heard the story, really.

Excerpted from the book, From the Cab: Stories From a Locmotive Engineer By Doug Riddell. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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