Airborne traffic reports are a mainstay of large-market radio stations, but the people who do them don’t get nearly as much credit as they deserve. Most of them work split-shifts, getting up well before dawn to get to the airport, spend several hours flying circles around town, then landing, spending a few hours on the ground, and then back at it for the afternoon rush hour. It’s a grueling five-day-a-week schedule that takes its toll, especially in cold-weather cities in the winter in planes or helicopters that are rarely heated.

The airborne reporters have to know the landscape of the city and its suburbs so well that they can tell which road is which and how long a backup is just from a quick glance down. Meanwhile, some of them are also the pilot, so they have to stay in contact with local air traffic controllers, broadcast the traffic report, read the appropriate commercial copy, and keep an eye on a digital clock so they hit the hourly newscast right on time. Try doing that 18-20 times over a 3-hour span and — oh, yeah — watch out for other aircraft in the area!

Most of the reports last about a minute, with talk of slowdowns in the usual places, an accident here or there, construction alerts, etc. But there are occasions where things get so bad, or the reporter sees something so major, that additional time is required.

Such an incident occurred last Wednesday in Phoenix, where KTAR’s morning news duo threw it to “Detour Dan” Beach for what they thought was going to be a standard report, the kind he’s been doing on that station for 20 years (!). But as soon as Dan keyed the mike and declared, “Oh, my god, I can’t believe what I’m watching,” everything changed. He went on to describe a horrific accident he had just witnessed, involving two tanker trucks that collided on I-10, closing the highway for 2 hours. Wisely, the morning team threw out the formatics and kept Dan on the air to describe the scene at length and be their eyes in the sky. You can hear his compelling and chilling audio here.