Pilots

Miles O'Brien

August 1, 2006

A show of hands here: Who hasn't rolled his eyes when a news anchor attributes an airplane crash to an engine stalling on takeoff? You'll never have to worry about that kind of gaffe coming from CNN's garrulous, infinitely quotable Miles O'Brien because he has connections in high places: flight instructors, airline transport pilots, aeronautical engineers. Those kinds of connections. Those kinds of high places. And he's not afraid to use them. O'Brien is an instrument-rated private pilot and owns a Cirrus SR22.

All of the above, he says, has given him an edge in reporting breaking news. Within seconds of February 2005's Canadair Challenger 600 crash in Teterboro, New Jersey, O'Brien was on the air and weighing in on the probable cause — with a little help from his aviation friends sending text messages. Another morning while O'Brien killed time in Cape Canaveral waiting for an indefinitely delayed shuttle launch, a slew of tornadoes swept through eastern Tennessee. He loaded up his Cirrus and flew to the disaster area ahead of the competition — and in time to substitute-anchor the evening news for Wolf Blitzer.

He's also used his status as a CNN heavyweight to fly equipment only the luckiest of private pilots would get to strap into. In 1992 O'Brien boarded a Lockheed C-130 Hercules and plowed straight through Hurricane Andrew. "It was an early serial number, 1950s vintage, and I got to thinking, 'How's the metal fatigue?'" he says. "We lost an engine, and the pilot says, 'No problem. That's why we have four.'"

O'Brien once landed on the Cape's long runway in NASA's Gulfstream II shuttle simulator. And he flew in an Air Force Thunderbird F-16. The seat tilts back at an extreme angle and the pilot repeatedly asked him to keep his head back in the rest. "I pulled 9 Gs," O'Brien recalls. "Back on the ground I could barely move my neck."

The hazards of participatory journalism.

It has not been all joy rides. Just a week after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, O'Brien flew patrol over Manhattan in an Air National Guard F-15 bristling with weapons. "That was an extraordinary day. We flew right over Ground Zero, which was still smoldering," O'Brien says. "Put that in the context of the tension we were all feeling in the country."

But he just missed out on perhaps the ultimate flight — into Earth orbit. Just two weeks before NASA was scheduled to name O'Brien the first American journalist in space, the Columbia disintegrated on re-entry. "I was even looking at real estate in Houston," he says.