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Airborne Traffic Reporter Bruce Wayne Dies in Crash

June 05, 1986|GARY JARLSON | Times Staff Writer

Bruce Wayne, the airborne traffic reporter who for 18 years guided millions of motorists through Southern California traffic snarls, was killed Wednesday morning when his plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Fullerton Municipal Airport.

Wayne's wife arrived at the accident site soon after the plane went down and calmly broadcast details of the crash.

The 52-year-old Wayne had just lifted off from the runway en route to his familiar perch above the freeways for radio stations KFI and KOST when, according to a witness, his blue and white Cessna Cardinal seemed to develop engine trouble at an altitude of about 300 to 500 feet.

A city employee working at the single-runway airfield told airport manager Rod Murphy that the plane's engine appeared to be backfiring or missing.

"When he looked up, the plane was in a tight left turn. Moments later there was a big explosion," Murphy said.

The single-engine plane slammed into an empty tractor-trailer rig parked behind a wholesale food warehouse half a mile east of the airport, exploding in a ball of fire on impact. No one on the ground was injured in the 6:18 a.m. crash.

As officials of the two radio stations became aware that Wayne had not been heard from--and that a plane was down at Fullerton--word of the accident was broadcast throughout Southern California. Eventually, KFI scrapped its regular programming and devoted its daytime hours to news accounts from the scene and tributes to the popular traffic reporter.

Several of the reports came from Wayne's wife of 21 years, Lois, who had been called at home by KFI.

Driven to the crash scene six miles from their home by a neighbor, Lois Wayne spent more than two hours calmly doing news reports about the accident and interviews on KFI.

No Number

"I am at the crash site of a (Cessna) Cardinal," Lois Wayne said, as her first interview was broadcast live. "There is no paint or a number on the aircraft. The aircraft did have an explosion on impact."

Although officials were not immediately certain that the wreckage was of her husband's plane, Lois Wayne said she knew right away that it was.

She later told reporters at the scene that her husband "was only two weeks from achieving his dream of surviving 25 years as an airborne traffic reporter. . . ."

"It meant everything to him, and he worked very hard to be able to keep doing it," Lois Wayne said. "He always kept himself in good physical shape, so he wouldn't have any problem renewing his license.

"He lived with this for 25 years, and we often talked about the dangers involved. It's just something everybody lives with."

Only hours later, after most of the reporters had left the crash scene, did the pilot's wife allow her emotions and grief to show.

"We always lived in the knowledge that something like this could happen," she said, tears brimming in her eyes. "But that's just part of the territory."

Recited Prayers

After authorities had placed her husband's charred remains in a body bag and placed it on a stretcher, Lois Wayne knelt beside it, touched the bag and recited "the 'Lord's Prayer' and my own personal prayer," she said.

Just Tuesday night, Wayne experienced a close call in the air, his wife said, when another plane swerved in front of him as he was preparing to land at Fullerton, after finishing his two-hour evening tour above the freeways.

"He was quite white when he came in the house and said, 'See, this is what it's like,' " she said.

KFI also took calls from listeners, who flooded the station's telephone lines Wednesday with testimonies of what the airborne traffic scout had meant to them.

A listener named Gary said in a near whisper: "There's going to be an empty spot in my car now."

Along with mourning Wayne's loss, callers also praised Lois Wayne for what they called her "courage" in accepting the tragedy publicly and thus helping the rest of his listeners grasp the death.

Radio Interview

"You are a trooper," one KFI reporter told the widow during an early morning interview on the air. "Bruce would be proud."

During the day, KFI frequently played Wayne's final "KFI in the Sky" traffic bulletin, which he gave three minutes before his plane crashed. The last thing heard on the tape is Wayne's hearty laughter, which a fellow radio reporter told listeners "was almost his trademark."

Born in Manchester, N.H., Wayne had nine years' experience in radio and television (and flying lessons courtesy of the GI Bill), when he became Boston's first flying traffic reporter in 1961. At the time, he said in a Times interview earlier this year, "I had never even heard an air traffic report."

According to Lois Wayne, who is writing a book about the history of the nation's flying traffic reporters, her husband was among the first in the nation. The first was Capt. Max Schumacher who began in 1958 for KABC radio in Los Angeles and was killed in a 1966 midair collision.

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