Proficient Pilot

So long, Hal

September 1, 2007

Aviation author Barry Schiff wrote two novels with his best friend, news anchor Hal Fishman.

There is more to the joy of flying than manipulating controls and communing with nature. It also involves sharing our passion with those who feel similarly. The person in my life who most satisfied that role was my best friend of 43 years, Hal Fishman. He was my pal, my flying buddy. I loved him like a brother, perhaps more so.

To the public, Hal was an icon, a television news anchor in Los Angeles who was the last of a dying breed that included the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. These were news professionals, not newsreaders with pretty faces. They had credibility and knew of what they spoke. (Hal had been a political science professor and easily made the transition to television news.) He was an anchor for 47 uninterrupted years and was awarded a Guinness World Record proclaiming his unequalled professional durability. Hal won more awards for television journalism than there is room here to list. Included is a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Hal fought against the "dumbing down" of television news and the silliness that frequently is seen on news telecasts. He believed that enlightening the electorate was a responsibility to be taken seriously. He had a brilliant mind, an incredible memory, and was regarded as a walking encyclopedia. He joked that, yes, he did have a "pornographic" memory.

He was most proud of being referred to as the "flying anchorman" because it was flying that gave him the greatest sense of personal satisfaction.

Hal used his airplane to go to the source of the news. For example, while other Los Angeles news stations speculated during the Cold War that a Soviet "fishing boat" off the coast of southern California was instead electronically eavesdropping, Hal wanted to see for himself. He flew 100 miles to sea in his Piper Comanche, found the trawler, and returned with video footage of a ship bristling with sophisticated antennae to show his viewers that evening.

When reporting aviation accidents and events, he delivered facts and insight without the inaccurate sensationalism found elsewhere.

Since 1983 he has owned a Beech Bonanza B36TC that I will soon sell on behalf of his family.

When I trained Hal for his instrument rating in the late 1960s, he commented at the end of a lengthy cross-country flight made under the hood that this had been the most aesthetic experience of his life. "The last thing I saw on the ground at the beginning of this flight," he said, "was the departure runway. After navigating, communicating, and piloting for almost three hours and seeing nothing while en route, I wound up with the destination runway filling my windshield. It's magical."

Although he enjoyed his Garmin GNS 530, he preferred correlating features on the ground with symbols on the chart, especially when over unfamiliar terrain. "Anyone," he said, "can navigate to the other side of the world using GPS. It requires little more skill than the moving map in my car. It takes an aviator, though, to get there with just a compass, a clock, and a chart."

Hal and I co-authored two novels, The Vatican Target and Flight 902 is Down! You should have been in the restaurant where we were overheard plotting the skyjacking of an airliner carrying the Pope for our first novel. Someone took us seriously and reported our "nefarious plans" to the police. A trio of officers came to our table to make the arrest. This ultimately led to such a violent wave of laughter that it still hurts my stomach to think about it.

My friend had a weakness, though, an inexplicable resistance to having a colonoscopy, and for this he paid the ultimate price. By the time the colon cancer had been discovered, it had metastasized to his liver, lungs, and bones.

My advice this month, therefore, is only indirectly related to aviation. If Hal's untimely passage — he was only 75 — is to serve a purpose, perhaps it can be that of an object lesson to keep others in the air. (Besides, you need to remain active AOPA members because I need all the readers I can get.)

This advice is specifically for those who have been putting off having a colonoscopy. I implore you to head for a gastroenterologist as soon as practicable. The procedure is simple and painless, although you should have a good book handy during preparation the night before.

As I write this, Hal has only been gone two days, and I am having difficulty typing these words through occasional tears. I feel a painful void as well as anger toward Hal for having deprived me of the love and camaraderie that we shared for so many years. So long, dear friend. We shall someday fly together again.

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