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 [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.