Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Epilogue | Al Ford

Al Ford was the eye in the sky for Tampa Bay

WESLEY CHAPEL — Stories about Al Ford, Tampa Bay's iconic aerial traffic reporter, whip freely like the wind.

Once, he calmly uttered, "uh oh," dipping 500 feet in his 1962 Piper Colt. His terrified passenger thought they were going to die. Lt. Ford just wanted to check out a stalled car.

He'd prepare for flight by sticking his fingers in the gas tank of his plane, Tillie the Toiler. If they came out wet, he was good to go — minus the smell afterward.

In 1980, when the Sunshine Skyway collapsed, Lt. Ford flew overhead in treacherous rain to report the scene. Through a hole in the storm, he saw headlights glaring from the water below. His adrenaline was so high, he called the girders "girdles."

That endearing, authentic personality attracted people, friends said. Lt. Ford died Nov. 8 after what friends called a long illness. He was 80.

"Everybody could relate to him as genuine and real," said Wayne Greenberg, a former colleague at radio station WDAE. "He was one of us."

Lt. Ford was born in Virginia to a preacher and his wife. The family was so poor, their Christmas present was an apple and a pecan, which Lt. Ford savored all day.

His family moved to Tampa when he was 5. After graduating from Jefferson High School, he joined the merchant marine and became an officer on the Tampa police force.

"I always wanted to be a cop," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1983. "I don't know why. Maybe that's what kept me straight when I was a kid. I never stole, except I swiped an orange from a tree once, but never anything else."

When Lt. Ford started the Tampa police band, managers at WDAE (later WSUN) caught wind of his natural charisma and made him a broadcaster in the air. He became a huge success.

"Whenever anybody talked about traffic, it was always the name Al Ford," said radio personality Tedd Webb. "The guy became a household name. He was very Tampa Bay-ish, very Florida. He was down to earth. He didn't try to be anything he wasn't."

Lt. Ford was known to call bad drivers "ding-a-lings" and dole out praise when someone did a good deed. He helped track down lost cars, direct boats in the water and assist police in tracking down hit-and-run drivers. He spoke to kids at dozens of local schools and was commended hundreds of times.

He retired from the police force in 1971 but kept reporting from the sky until 1991. After that, he lived quietly in Wesley Chapel with his wife of 26 years, Joyce. Friends would see him at movies or functions, always with the same gleam in his eye.

In 2004, the Tampa Police Department installed Tillie the Toiler in the building lobby, sailing from the ceiling overhead.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (727) 893-8857.


Al Ford

Born: July 7, 1928.

Died: Nov. 8, 2008.

Survivors: wife Joyce Ann; children Carolyn Kinslow and husband James, Kimberly Ballish and husband Chris, Melissa Ballmann and husband Dan, and David and Al Ford; grandchildren Shawna, Aaron, Samantha, Stephen, Scott, Brooke, Spencer, Sean, Russell, Dave, Heather, Wesley, Alan, and Garrett; and three great-grandchildren.

Al Ford was the eye in the sky for Tampa Bay 11/18/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2008 8:07pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Recipe for Chicken Wings with Coconut Sweet Potato Puree


    This dish is an homage to one of my favorite Epcot International Food and Wine Festival dishes: Grilled Beef Skewer With Chimichurri Sauce and Boniato Puree from the Patagonia kiosk. A boniato is a sweet potato with whiter flesh and a typically sweeter flavor. I use standard sweet potatoes in this recipe, plus a little …

    Chicken Wings with Sweet Potato Puree. Photo by Michelle Stark, Times Food Editor.
  2. Rubio attacked for not attacking 'Antifa'


    The far right is angry with Sen. Marco Rubio for condemning white nationalist groups in Charlottesville -- and faulting President Trump for not doing some more clearly – while not …

  3. Prosecutors tried to delay a trial because of the eclipse. Florida judge cited 'Star Trek' in ruling


    The wheels of justice may grind slowly, but they cannot be stopped by Monday's total eclipse, a judge has ruled.

    Schweta Kulkarni, from left, Rhea Kulkarni and Saanvi Kulkarni, from Seattle, try out their eclipse glasses on the sun at a gathering of eclipse viewers in Salem, Ore., early Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Don Ryan) ORDR102
  4. Top 5 at Noon: Mayoral race affects ballpark decision; stream the eclipse live


    Here are the latest headlines and updates on

    Looking east at Tropicana Field and downtown St. Petersburg.  SCOTT KEELER    |    Times

  5. Full disclosure: My AP Top 25 ballot


    Now that you've seen the preseason AP Top 25, here's what I submitted in my first year as a voter. The AP doesn't give us many guidelines in the preseason. I didn't try to predict how …