The 95.5 WSB family suffered a big loss on Dec. 12, when iconic reporter Pete Combs lost his short battle with bone and lung cancer. Combs worked two stints with WSB between 2006 and 2019, covering national stories for CBS Radio and ABC Radio, along with the local beat in Atlanta.
When the AJC’s breaking-news team started working from our radio newsroom, Combs and beat writer Kristi Swartz worked in back-to-back cubicles.
“We clicked from the start. I mean, he had this energy and enthusiasm that were just infectious,” Swartz, who now writes about utilities and energy for EnergyWire.com, said.
Early into this collaboration, they began working stories together. The Sept. 20, 2010, emergency plane landing on I-85 one will go down as one of the most memorable and odd.
“It was pretty calm out there and there was some scanner chatter,” Swartz recalled. Combs was closer to that police scanner than her and heard the first reports that DeKalb County 911 received about a plane possibly going down on I-85.
Combs and Swartz wasted no time, though Swartz admitted she needed a minute to process what Combs had just heard.
“We both looked at each other and he said, ‘You wanna go?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’”
They checked in with their bosses and then hit the road, obstacles be damned.
“We were getting closer — we could see the plane from the other side of the highway. And Pete’s driving and I’m in the passenger seat and we are just talking a mile a minute.”
Their station vehicle was traveling a bit faster than 60 mph, however, as they approached the Shallowford Road exit off of I-85/northbound.
“Both of us had our heads turned to the left, so we are looking across the highway and we can see the plane.” Swartz said. Their attention to the plane and their speed almost sent them into stopped traffic on the exit ramp. “He looks at me and goes, ‘You look, I’ll drive.’”
Their urgency in leaving WSB’s and AJC’s Midtown offices meant they got to pull up right next to the plane.
At just before 5 p.m., a Piper aircraft scraped to a stop in the three left lanes on I-85/southbound about one mile south of Shallowford. It didn’t crash, hit zero cars, and the pilot even posed with a thumbs-up after officials got him safely from the plane. It was a miracle. Had he been forced to land on the busier northbound side, the plane very likely could have hit vehicles and made the landing far more infamous.
The late Captain Herb Emory relayed the first reports the WSB Traffic Team received of this landing.
“We’ve got four left lanes blocked on I-85/southbound between Shallowford Road and Clairmont Road in DeKalb County,” Emory bellowed during the opening of the 5 p.m. newscast on 95.5 WSB (WSB had just begun simulcasting on 95.5 FM the month prior). Emory then pitched to former WSB Skyplane reporter Kim McCarthy, who circled above the melee.
“There are a lot of emergency vehicles on the scene. It doesn’t look like the plane is damaged too badly,” McCarthy calmly reported. “There is no fire at this time — only southbound traffic is affected. Traffic is slow back to Shallowford Road, Captain.”
As I worked from the WSB 24-Hour Traffic Center on the ground, relaying what information I could to Emory and McCarthy, they worked hard to assure everyone that this improper plane-interstate connection was not nearly as bad as it sounded. Once Combs and Swartz arrived, they got right up close and did just the same.
At 5:11 p.m., Combs described to WSB news anchor Chris Chandler just what he saw.
“Right now, I’m looking directly at this Piper Saratoga, a single-engine, high-performance airplane, red and white, with gold stripes on it.” Combs was an aviation wonk, even hosting a podcast, “The Human Factor: Tales from the Flight Deck.”
Swartz was impressed that Combs knew to take down the tail number of the aircraft, so they could easily look up flight information. And Combs’ knowledge of planes made for a richer dispatch to WSB’s listeners. “I think (calling this) landing is probably pretty charitable,” Combs’ adrenaline rang. “It looks like (the pilot) had some gear down landing on touchdown here and that maybe another problem actually brought him onto the highway.”
Combs continued, “There appears to be no fire. The pilot is out and appears to be talking to fire officials right now. The propeller of this plane is bent, so it was moving as the airplane struck the ground. One of the tires on the main landing gear is flat, the nose gear doesn’t appear to have deployed at all.”
Combs was obviously just seeing and gathering some facts as he talked, a talent that few can pull off well. His snap judgments throughout his coverage of this strange news story astonished, educated, and reassured the listening audience.
Crews eventually towed the wounded Piper down the I-85/southbound exit to Clairmont Road and then north to DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. The scene’s diminuendo was very much like that of a car crash scene: tow and go. The delays could have been much worse and the closure much longer.
Swartz said she was always so amazed with one particular trait of Combs’ and those like him: “The amazing ability to boil something down to 30 seconds or 20 seconds and then he would paint a picture.”
Swartz said that even though she saw the same things Combs saw up close, she could close her eyes and listen to his reports and see them just the same way.
Much like the vicious whiplash of the news cycle, Combs’ battle with cancer came like a blind left hook and knocked him into hospice care almost before any of us really got to process that he was in such shape. His war with the disease, though, ended much as the I-85 plane scene did: peacefully and mostly painlessly for him.
Many who worked alongside him, including myself, have described him as a “reporter’s reporter,” always thirsting to get as close to a story as quickly as possible. He once asked me for any NASCAR aviation connections to try to bum a ride to earthquake-ravaged Haiti. He always found a way.
To Combs’ widow, Karen, son Daniel, and the rest of his family and close friends: thanks for sharing him with us and with the many listeners his unmistakable voice graced all over the United States. The Atlanta motoring public needed that calming baritone on that hot Monday evening over nine years ago and many more times of crisis. Godspeed.