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Flying Walter Cronkite

walter-cronkiteThe recent passing of Walter Cronkite made me especially sad.

As a little boy I watched him on our black and white TV as he told me “The Way It Was” about World War II.  Then when I was a young man, I listened as Walter told the nation we would have to negotiate our way out of the Vietnam War.  He was a factor in all of our lives during those years.

So when a flying buddy who also happened to be a reporter at CNN asked if we could fly Walter Cronkite from New York to Merritt Island, Florida in our Citation, the answer was an unhesitating yes.  John Glenn was going into space for the second time and Walter and another flying buddy of ours, Miles O’Brien, were to co-anchor the coverage for CNN.  The problem was that Walter was to receive an award from the United Nations the night before.  And the only way to get to Cape Kennedy in time was by private airplane.  Walter would be comfortable in our relatively small airplane, our old Citation—his wife, Betsy, had learned to fly and Walter himself had taken flying lessons.  So it was John and Martha to the rescue.

Martha was to be the captain and I was to be elevated to my obvious level of incompetence as co-pilot.  The route that ATC gave us between La Guardia airport and Merritt Island airport was incredibly complicated.  We put the first few legs into the GPS and planned to fill the rest in after we got airborne.

Martha and I had a habit of putting our charts on the floor between the two pilot seats, but they did have the occasional tendency to slide backwards when we pitched up for a steep climb.  This time when we rotated for take-off, every chart we had slid clear to the back of the airplane and landed between Walter’s two feet.  As the lowly co-pilot it was my job to unbuckle and go back and retrieve the charts.  As I embarrassedly reached down between Walter’s feet to retrieve the charts, he gave me one of the basic truths of navigation, “Aw, just fly south.”  Walter had it perfectly right, but I was pretty sure that was not the way New York Center would feel about it.

As an old sailor, Walter had the essence.  Just hold your heading.  If only I could have had him tell New York Center, “That’s the Way It Was.”


  1. chris roenitz

    I have funny memory of Walter Cronkite. I was wasting time at Puser’s in Tortola. I thought I had had too much to drink because I was hearing Walter Cronkite’s voice. Then sure enough it was him. Cordial nice guy!!!

  2. Paul Nadas, CFI

    Thanks for sharing that, John. I too grew up with Walter’s inimitable take on world affairs punctuating our evenings in front of the televised news and was in Viet Nam as a teenager learning firsthand what Walter came to understand when he visited that sorry country – that the U.S. was in an untenable position which would only get worse. The days of Walter’s kind of news reporting seems to have been ejected in favor of ‘pundits’ and obnoxious opinionated boors and loudmouths whose dim understanding of ‘the way things are’ is eclipsed only by their ignorance and bias. I think those of us ‘of a certain age’ all miss Walter and others of his generation like him. Thanks again, John.

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  4. Kurt Winker

    As a private pilot, air traffic (Center) controller, Airport manager & airplane builder, I would have loved to hear Walter’s voice requesting to just “fly south”. And, if there was room, I would have given that to you!
    It was a plesure to hear Mr. Freeman’s voice flying through my sector one day. The distinctive voice & professionalism that he displays in his work, were quite apparent in his flying. Good to have him helping GA Serves America, and the Kings doing their usual thourough job for us as well.

    I appreciate it, Kurt

  5. Jim Morrison

    Great people like Mr. Cronkite are few and far between. We are loosing the last of a great generation, that did what had to be done and asked little for themselves. You are fortunate to meet and befriend a truly remarkable person. I hope each of us could meet such a remarkable person; so in the future we might learn and understand what their generation gave us. Just as those men and women serving in our Armed Forces (USA, Canada, Britain etc.) are doing today.

  6. Danny

    Great Story, Can you imagine what the center controller would have thought hearing Cronkite’s unmistakeable voice?
    Thanks for all that you do for aviation !!

  7. John Gooch

    Pretty cool story John! I’m sure Kalamazoo, MI tower would have slightly frowned on that transmission also but Walter would have been cleared from ground control!

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