Walt Starling, a flying traffic reporter whose live radio reports of Capital Beltway jams, fender benders and bottlenecks helped Washington area commuters get to work every morning and home every night, died Jan. 4 of colon cancer at his home in Laytonsville. He was 52.
Mr. Starling was the first traffic reporter in the area to become a radio personality. From 1974 until 1995, he folded his 6-foot-4 frame into the cramped cockpit of a Cessna 172 and circled the Beltway at 1,200 feet, looking for ways to keep traffic flowing and commuter frustrations to a minimum, tasks that grew increasingly difficult as population boomed and traffic increased. He reported traffic twice a day for a succession of area stations, flying an estimated 2.2 million air miles.
In recent years, he had been working for WRC-TV in the District.
Mr. Starling's career as an air-traffic radio reporter began as a class project at the University of Maryland in 1973. As he explained to The Washington Post in 1994, he was a senior in the radio and television program, and his assignment was to create a job for himself. He was taking flying lessons at the time and came up with the idea of using a fixed-wing plane to monitor traffic and provide regular radio reports. Fuel, maintenance and insurance would be less expensive than for a helicopter, and a plane would be safer, he maintained.
The instructor, also a pilot, was not convinced. "That's about the dumbest thing I've ever read," he told Mr. Starling.
Undaunted, Mr. Starling dropped out of school and pitched the idea to WAVA (105.1 FM) The station agreed to give it a try, and on March 4, 1974, he began delivering 10 reports during morning drive time and 10 during the afternoon rush. In the early days of his venture, he was allowed to sell his own sponsorships, so he traded commercial spots for, among other things, eyeglasses, meals, cars and carpeting for his home.
Mr. Starling, the only Washington area traffic reporter with a pilot's license, was one of the few traffic reporters in the country who both flew the plane and did the reporting, dual duties that made insurance companies anxious. Circling above the snaking lines of traffic, he managed to work the controls of his plane, spot where the traffic was snarled and then deliver up-to-the-minute information in smooth one-minute reports.
He had only two emergency landings during his traffic-reporting career, but he knew the location of every swath of green in the area, just in case.
His voice had a calming effect on often-harried commuters. At sunset during the winter, he would gently remind drivers to switch on their headlights, and he knew the area so well he could offer alternatives to drivers coming up on bottlenecks. He also trained other traffic reporters, including Andy Parks of WMAL (630 AM) and Bob Marbourg of WTOP (1500 AM).
Walter Maurice Starling was born in Washington and grew up in Hyattsville, down the street and around the corner from College Park Airport, where the Wright brothers trained the nation's first military pilots. His father, Walter M. Starling, a businessman who died last month, earned his private pilot's license in 1947 and took his son up for the first time in 1956, when he was 4. (Mr. Starling's sister and son also are pilots.)
He graduated from Northwestern High School in Hyattsville in 1970. At U-Md. in the early 1970s, he reported for WMUC (88.1 FM), the campus radio and TV station, but dropped out of school to begin his "Washington Skywatch." He received his undergraduate degree in 1981. Over the years, he reported for WAVA-AM and FM News Radio, WASH (97.1 FM), WPGC (95.5 FM) and WLIT/WARW-FM.
His heyday, recalled David Burd of WMAL-AM, was at WASH-FM in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The station was tops in the market, and Mr. Starling's reports were a popular feature.
In the early 1990s, as stations increasingly turned to traffic reporting services that offer reports to several stations at the same time, the economics of the individual reporter turned against Mr. Starling. After leaving WARW-FM in 1995, he went to work for WRC-TV, where he began learning the medium of television from the ground up. He was an assignment editor for the station before becoming ill in early 2004.
Mr. Starling was an active member of First United Methodist Church in Hyattsville. He also flew as a barnstorming pilot for Flying Circus Airshows and restored vintage planes.
Survivors include his wife of 29 years, Sharon Lynn Starling of Laytonsville; two children, W. Brent Starling of Laytonsville and Joanna Lynn Starling of Rockville, his mother, Doris Starling of Silver Spring; a sister, Phyllis Starling of Rockville; and two grandchildren.