Grounded by layoffs, iconic traffic reporter says 'sky's the limit' for next move

  • Kris Habermehl, veteran traffic and spot news reporter, surveys the Chicago region from a helicopter.

    Kris Habermehl, veteran traffic and spot news reporter, surveys the Chicago region from a helicopter. Courtesy of Kris Habermehl

  • Kris Habermehl, veteran traffic and spot news reporter, is also a captain for the Kirkland Fire Department.

    Kris Habermehl, veteran traffic and spot news reporter, is also a captain for the Kirkland Fire Department. Courtesy of Kris Habermehl

  • Kris Habermehl was a fixture broadcasting the annual Chicago Air and Water Show. The show was canceled this year because of COVID-19.

    Kris Habermehl was a fixture broadcasting the annual Chicago Air and Water Show. The show was canceled this year because of COVID-19. Courtesy of Kris Habermehl

 
 
Posted9/14/2020 5:30 AM

It's rush hour, and you have 30 minutes to get to that crucial meeting, important doctor's appointment or child care before it closes.

For years, an upbeat voice on WBBM 780-AM/WCFS 105.9-FM offered a lifeline.

 

"The northbound Tri-State is solid from Cicero up to before the 83rd Street Toll Plaza with an overturned truck in the three left lanes," airborne traffic reporter Kris Habermehl would advise, offering drive times and detours to escape gridlock.

In July, as COVID-19 caused traffic to shrink, the radio station laid off the Emmy Award recipient, who is taking the hiatus on the chin.

"I miss the people I can't see. It's about being able to tell the public -- in an era of rampant misinformation -- something valid and timely, accurate, and above all, helpful," said Habermehl, who lives on a farm near Rockford.

As a lieutenant and training officer at the local fire department, Habermehl isn't exactly out to pasture. He moved from Schaumburg "out to the sticks" in 2004 and signed up as a volunteer firefighter in 2005 -- one way of dealing with "frustration about not being able to do anything" while covering catastrophes.

Those included spot news like the crash of an American Eagle jet in a field near Roselawn, Indiana, that killed 68 people on Halloween in 1994. Or the Fox River Grove bus collision with a Metra train that killed seven high school students on Oct. 25, 1995.

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Sometimes, "I felt like a voyeur talking about somebody's worst day without being able to intercede," Habermehl said.

A lighter event involved a May 1994 debacle over a murder suspect thought to be lurking on a Milwaukee-bound bus. When the driver pulled over at the Deerfield toll plaza, mixed signals resulted in a "He's taking hostages!" panic, Habermehl recalled.

Police sharpshooters waited. Passengers evacuated with their hands in the air. Rush-hour traffic including Chicago Bulls fans heading to the playoffs stalled, and for five hours Habermehl narrated the drama from 1,000 feet above.

"After all of this -- the guy wasn't on the bus." But "it was a watershed moment," as Chicago news stations realized they needed full-time helicopters, Habermehl recounted.

His guiding philosophy is, "You've got to put yourself in the driver's seat and remember -- while you have this grand vista of 10 miles in every direction -- the people on the ground -- all they're seeing is bumpers and brake lights."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So -- what's the worst expressway for congestion?

"Hands down, I-80/I-94," Habermehl said. Going through northwestern Indiana "is like shoving a bowling ball through a funnel."

Worst toll road?

"The Tri-State Tollway. It fills up even in these days of COVID-19. It's the main circuit between Wisconsin and Indiana; we just happen to be in the way."

How would he improve traffic?

"I'd like to see the widening of I-80, especially in the Joliet area. If they could do to I-80 what they did to I-90 ..." Habermehl mused, giving props to the Illinois' tollway's expansion project. "Magnificent big center, beefy J-walls (barriers), big wide shoulders."

Weirdest accident?

"We've had spilled pork on the road," Habermehl recalled. "A potato truck overturned on the Stevenson Expressway ramp and potatoes rolling around. A ladder on the road and my buddy (WBBM's) Joe Collins said, 'Travel times are climbing.'"

Some of Habermehl's favorite lines and gags include, "It's incredibly dry outside, so smokers, hold on to your butts," or stringing up Christmas lights inside the helicopter.

Habermehl's dad was an aviation enthusiast, and Kris started flying as a teenager. He grew up near the Glenview Naval Air Station and along with a buddy would pass off as military brats and spend hours chatting up mechanics. He's been an airborne reporter since 1992, working at several Chicago stations.

Habermehl, 56, said he always felt safe in the hands of the professionals piloting the traffic helicopters, although there have been impromptu landings -- sometimes to scrape ice from the windows ­ -- and once, as they circled the Taste of Chicago, a small plane appeared out of nowhere, causing an unwanted close encounter.

As well as his on-air colleagues, Habermehl said he'll miss his annual dream assignment of broadcasting the Chicago Air and Water Show, canceled this year because of the pandemic.

"I never said, 'Look at me! I am the sky god.' I just wanted to be able to help," Habermehl said. But, "I've reinvented myself so many times. The sky's the limit."

You should know

Metra BNSF riders should check schedules and prepare for delays Thursday through Sept. 20, as the railroad replaces ties between Cicero and Downers Grove. Some trains will be canceled. For more information, go to metrarail.com.

One more thing

United Airlines is expanding its international routes, starting with nonstop travel from O'Hare International Airport to Tel Aviv three times a week. And in December, the carrier will begin daily service to New Delhi. Coming in 2021, more flights to Hawaii.

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