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A J-School Assignment I’ll Never Forget

By Waka Tsunoda ’62

One of the biggest news stories while I was a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism was the plane crash of American Airlines’ Flight One on March 1, 1962. Just two minutes after take-off from Idlewild Airport (now JFK Airport), the Los Angeles-bound jet nose-dived into Jamaica Bay and exploded. The crash, later attributed to a defect in its auto pilot system, claimed the lives of all 95 people on board, the largest casualty rate of any commercial, single-plane accident in the United States at that time.

A few days later, I was assigned to go to the airport and observe Gabe Pressman, a 1947 graduate of the J-School, cover the Civil Aeronautics Board’s investigation of the tragedy for WNBC-TV. Since I had worked in NBC’s Tokyo bureau, and received a scholarship to study at the J-School from Gen. David Sarnoff, who headed RCA, NBC’s then-parent company, I was thrilled at the prospect of watching the company’s famous journalist stand on the tarmac and talk intensely to the rolling cameras. At the airport, I found his crew, but the man often called a “reporter’s reporter” was nowhere in sight.

“Where is Mr. Pressman?” I asked.

One of the men pointed at a Boeing 707 parked nearby. It was the same model as the one that had crashed.

“He’s inside.”

I climbed onto the plane and introduced myself to Mr. Pressman, who welcomed me graciously. Assuming he would soon finish whatever he was doing and get off the jet, I decided to deplane also and wait on the tarmac. As I headed for the cabin door, I felt the plane move. Before I realized what was happening, it had taken off, and I was looking down at the green-brown expanse of the wetlands in Jamaica Bay 700 feet below.

Where is this plane going? I wondered with rising panic. London? Paris? I don’t even have my passport, and have only a few dollars in my pocket!

As it turned out, I wasn’t going anywhere. The jet soon landed, but then, without stopping, took off again. It was executing a series of take-offs and landings, so investigators could figure out why American Flight One had crashed.

Mr. Pressman looked just fine, but some of his staff looked as green as I did from the roller-coaster plane ride. I began to fear that I might throw up and disgrace the only graduate journalism school in the Ivy League when the plane finally finished the test run and landed.

Ever a gentleman, Mr. Pressman gave me a ride from the airport to 116th and Broadway. Journalism, I mused as I staggered into the dormitory on shaky legs, could be a pretty dangerous occupation!

Posted by: AlumniAlumni June 2012

One Comment

  1. marionvirgil
    Posted 06.20.12 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    So, what’s an aspiring journalist to do? Take everything with a grain of salt, and I mean everything. Industry news, trends, rejections, compliments, success, advice and even this post. No one knows the future of media, but I can guarantee the trade of journalism isn’t disappearing anytime soon

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