A plane carrying one Virginia gubernatorial candidate crashed into a fence at Bailey's Crossroads in Fairfax. A helicopter carrying another made an emergency landing in a hayfield. A Virginia attorney general stepped onto a rain-slick air strip to the cheers of a crowd applauding not in anticipation of his speech but the fact that he had landed safely after all.
For candidates traversing a broad state with little time, less financing and a lot of voters to convince before election day, hours of air time in small planes over tricky terrain have become a fact of life.
"Any landing you walk away from is a good landing," Virginia gubernatorial candidate Henry Howell said in 1969 when his twin-engine Piper Aztec crashed into a fence, imbedding a steel post in the right wing.
The remark has gained a grimness now in lihgt of Richard's Obenshain's death near Richmond Wednesday night, but it might be taken as a motto of what travel is like on a campaign trail dictated as much by financial exigencies as political ones.
"Financing a political campaign gets to be so doggone hand-to-mouth sometimes that you end up accepting pretty much anything (a contributor) will give you," said Linwood Holton, who tried hard for the Republican senatorial nomination Obenshain won and who, as a successful gubernatorial candidate in 1969, ended up in the hayfield.
Nevertheless Holton said, some of the planes in which he has ridden while cruising for voters "weren't much more than a box kit with a cowboy at the wheel."
With campaign schedules that may begin with breakfast in Alexandria, a Rotarian luncheon in Roanoke and a Chamber of Commerce dinner in Norfolk, a serious political candidate "simply has to spend a lot of time flying," said Larry Murphy, senior executive assistant to Virginia Gov. John Dalton and a former campaign scheduler and liscensed pilot himself.
But the cost of chartering the planes that will whisk the cnadidate from Predawn handshaking at the canning factory to chicken dinners with the League of Women Voters is "exorbitant," Murphy said. "A campaign just can't absorb that kind of expenditure."
Instead, he said, most campaigns try to build up a list of candidate time on a plane that either he or his company owns rather than a cash contribution.
As governor, Dalton flies only in a state-owned, twin-engine plane with two pilots, Murphy said, but as a candidate he didn't have that luxury. "When someone is offering the use of a plane you need to get from Roanoke to Norfolk you can't exactly insist on two pilots,"he said.
In fact, said Holtan, with contributions limited by law to $1,000, an in-kind contribution of the use of a twin engine plane can quickly bring a candidate up to the ceiling. "Sometimes, it forces you to a smaller plane than you'd like," Holton said. "Sometimes, you cut it a little bit thin."
According to a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, there were 4,193 accidents in 1976 in the "general aviation" category, a variegated grouping that includes all noncommercial aircraft. There were 695 fatal accidents among them, the spokesman said.
But while the finances invoked in procuring an aircraft may have something to do with the haphazard flying conditions endured by the state's political hopefuls, some local airstrips don't much help matters.
While politicians and state officials interviewed concentrated on describing the state's airfields in terms of Firginia's future economic development, journalists who have landed on some of the same fields used the word "harrowing" to refer to them.
Campaign schedules can often force a candidate into the air when the skies are looking darker than the latest pollsters's forecasts.
Reporters traveling with Howell in the last days of his campaign found themselves in a small plane traveling along a storm front toward Norfolk that at one point sent the plane plummeting earthward for three seconds, landing car keys, cushions and one reporter on the plane's ceiling.
Another reporter on the plane was hospitalized briefly after the plane landed, but Howell himself was calm. "Hang in there. Curley." Howell shouted to his pilot, "Virginia needs me."