In Kansas City when someone mentions the word “helicopter” the next words out of their mouth are generally “Johnny Rowlands.” The two just seem to go together as Rowlands has been flying around Kansas City for decades now. Since 1993 he has been KMBC’s go-to guy for traffic and severe weather reports. It can be a difficult job, but he comes across to viewers and radio listeners as a calm voice sometimes in the midst of chaos.
While Rowlands’ reputation as a top-notch pilot is unparalleled in this market, few people realize that he is also a serial entrepreneur who has created a number of interesting businesses. Even fewer probably realize the pilot flying high overhead is actually scared of heights!!
We sat down with Rowlands to discuss his career and think you will agree he is a fascinating individual. Ladies and gentlemen, Johnny Rowlands…
Name: Johnny Rowlands
Title: Pilot/Reporter – NewsChopper 9 – KMBC-TV
Hometown: Prairie Village, Kansas
Baker University, B.S. In Communications, Minor in Journalism
Recently married to the amazing Angela Engle, ballroom dance instructor and the most graceful and compelling woman I have ever known. Son Blake, 29.
How long have you been in your current position?
I’ve been at Ch. 9 since 2003.
How did you get into your chosen field?
Honestly, this wasn’t my chosen field. As a kid I had dreamed of being an airline pilot, but I found out in high school that I didn’t meet what was then the requirement of perfect vision uncorrected. So, going into college I was lost.
In my freshman year at Baker University I started doing the weather forecasts for the campus radio station, ended up as News Director for a semester, and then as a DJ. Started my Top 40 career at KEWI in Topeka, then came home to KC to work at Super Q in the mid/late ’70′s.
I got my airplane private pilot license for fun and bought into a Cessna 150 in 1977. Left Q, tried a couple of unsuccessful stints as a Program Director, and jumped at the chance to fly traffic for KMBZ in 1983. I started my own traffic company in ’88, and was the first to fly a TV helicopter for WDAF in October, 1993. I moved over to KMBC in 2003, and here I am.
Any other jobs?
My last answer pretty much explains that, except for working the clubs as a DJ in the early 80′s, and teaching at Baker University for a few semesters during that same time period.
Have you won any major honors or awards?
I haven’t ever really done anything that important. I shared an Emmy along with others from Ch. 9 for some tornado coverage a few years ago, but that’s about it.
Has your chosen field changed over the years?
I would say since I started in ’93 that there has been a huge shift from just doing traffic to actually being an additional reporter resource, especially with the emphasis on breaking news these days. There’s no other way to match the quick response a helicopter provides, and that’s particularly evident on the stories that break outside the metro.
And of course it has enormously changed how severe weather is covered. We have the ability to validate warnings by actually showing video of those tornado producing cells and the associated signatures of tornado development, which is huge in helping people stay safe.
What is the most rewarding part of your job? Least rewarding?
The most rewarding would be the aforementioned tornado coverage. There is nothing more powerful to get people to take action in regards to their safety than showing a tornado live on the air and pinpointing the path. Radar returns and even spotter information can take several minutes to process. We’re showing storms in real time, and it’s the immediacy that by default makes it the most accurate information.
The least rewarding is covering anything involving a fatality. It’s at the very least sobering, if not downright disturbing. I am always aware that the victims’ loved ones could be watching, and in that regard I try to be very careful in what we show. Thankfully the television station is very sensitive to that and shares my intent to be as discreet as possible.
Did you ever consider another career other than flying a helicopter?
As long as I’m flying I would be happy. The TV stuff is fun, and I feel very blessed to be doing what I’m doing, but being on-call all day is grueling, and I’m going into my 20th year of that, with no relief of that expectation in sight.
So if I made a change it would be something where I could get my life back. Oh… and not have to get up before 5:00 in the morning anymore. For some people that’s not a big deal, but I’m not a morning person.
Do you have a mentor?
I’ve had many wonderfully talented people who have been a great influence on me over the years, but anyone who knows me knows I would say my mentor was my father. He was a Pearl Harbor survivor, on the USS Nevada at Normandy lobbing salvos onto Utah beach, and loved by anyone who ever met him.
He died in 1999, and at his funeral I had Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band” played, specifically for the lyric “My life is but a poor attempt to imitate the man.” He was as authentic as a person could possibly be.
What is the strangest thing you have come across in your job?
Probably how many people think I am Johnny Dolan, who was the king of WHB in the 60′s and early 70′s. He left WHB about the time I came onto the Q, so everybody thinks we’re the same guy. It used to be when people told me how much they loved me on WHB I would try to set the record straight, but anymore I just smile and say how great the good old days were, and then move on.
Have you ever had any close calls while in the air?
Probably the worst was the failure of a fuel control unit on the JetRanger I was flying for Ch.4. I was storm chasing with Don Harman on board and basically the throttle failed wide open, the engine and rotor system pegged at 120% of normal rpm, and I had no control over it.
I thought it was going to shake itself to death before I got in on the ground. It was like being in a blender. I got it on the ground okay, but when it was all over I remember being pretty weak in the knees. Don, on the other hand, was totally cool and seemed unfazed by the whole ordeal. Making jokes, of course.
With all the things going on while you are flying you seem to make it look effortless.
I’m not sure how effortless I make it look, but I do multi-task. It’s always, though, in the context of flying comes first. I have lots of voices in my headset, all the way from the control tower, to the Ch. 9 news desk, producers and sometimes directors. Add to that the Total Traffic folks who provide the traffic info, talking with my photog on the aircraft intercom, and monitoring either Ch. 9 or KMBZ off air, and yes, it can get busy.
It does take a lot of focus and concentration, but it’s not something I’m really aware of until we fly one of those marathon stories and end up hovering over a scene for hours and hours. It’s then when I realize how exhausting it can be, so much so that I’m typically totally gassed the next day, and actually physically sore all over just from being tensed up for all that time. I guess I’m just not a naturally relaxed person.
What is your favorite thing to do in Kansas City?
Anything. I just love this city, the people, the climate, and how beautiful it is at night from the air. Angee loves it too, which is the best part. We just love to socialize, in whatever form, at whatever venue.
What do you do in your free time? Any hobbies?
I try to stay fit, so Angee and I work out together almost every morning. Her ballroom dance students are great, so there’s a lot of socializing that goes along with that. We like to go to the movies, and Angee is very much into the arts so we hit the Nelson Art Gallery every so often, as well as the ballet and other performances at the Kaufmann Center. We like to travel as well, but with my schedule we don’t do enough of it.
“People might be surprised to know that you …”
Well, I’m afraid of heights. I’m fine with a seat underneath me, but don’t make me look over the edge of a building.
What is your favorite TV show(s)?
I don’t watch a lot of TV, but people usually laugh when I tell them I watch “Cops” all the time. I’m a huge law enforcement fan, and “Cops” is as close as I can get to a ride along. People laugh even harder when I tell them I watch “Dog The Bounty Hunter,” too. That show is just great entertainment.
Have you ever interviewed a celebrity? Explain.
I always got intimidated when I did celebrity interviews and got so nervous I usually tried to get out of doing them. I wouldn’t say he was a big celebrity, but I interviewed Leif Garrett on Super Q at the peak of his career and he dropped the “F” bomb. It was unmistakable, and I saw my brief little career flash before my eyes. But amazingly, I didn’t get one phone call. Nor did management. It was a miracle.
Who is the most interesting person you have interviewed or met?
I interviewed Michael Bolton on the Q when he was a total unknown and he was a lot of fun. A week later I flew to St. Louis for the weekend and bumped into him at the airport. He stopped me, called me by name and thanked me for the interview. Don’t know if fame has changed him, but he couldn’t have been a nicer guy.
Aside from Bottom Line (assumed!) who do you follow on Twitter?
I channel all my Twitter energy to Kris Ketz, and apparently it’s working.
It is said you’re somewhat of an entrepreneur…
Spending a lot of time at Johnson County Executive Airport on-call, I decided it was a good opportunity to start a helicopter services company called KC Copters (kccopters.com). We provide scenic tours over the city, romantic tours for proposals and anniversaries, and of course the wildly popular Plaza Lights Flights around Christmastime. We’re also an FAA-approved flight school.
A division of KC Copters is Hi Def Helicopters (HiDefHeli.com), an aerial video company, and we’ve done some pretty big shoots for the History Channel, documentary filmmakers, and Simon Cowell’s X-Factor, as well as a lot of local stuff. Another company I started last spring is BorrowMyTruck.com, When folks need a friend with a pickup, they can go to our site and rent one to haul just about anything for a very reasonable price.
And finally, I’ve recently launched HeliChasers.com, the first and only helicopter storm chasing tours. Next spring, when there is no severe weather threat in KC, and outside of the spring ratings sweeps, I’ll be taking vacation time to fly folks to tornado hotspots, just like the ground based tours, only better!