For motorists 800 feet below, it's another story. With an hour to go before dawn, headlights from commuters heading south on I-85 stretch like a glittering ribbon almost to the horizon. To their right, six lanes of red lights crawl north. These are people driving 10, 20, even 50 miles to work.
The radio crackles. There's a four-car accident on Ga. 400 northbound. Provost swings the chopper to the west. Barrigar adjusts the toggle on a laptop remote, connected to a gyro-stabilized camera that's attached to the belly of the chopper. The zoom on the camera is so deep and crisp you could read the license plates on a Dodge Neon.
The four-car wreck on 400 has been cleared to the side, but traffic still just inches past. Provost keeps the chopper in a hover, fighting a stiff wind, while Barrigar zooms in on the scene and Kalland zips off a 15-second update for viewers. "That's a big difference from a few years ago," Kalland says after his spot. "400 North used to be clear. But there's been so much development in Forsyth County, so many office complexes."
Kalland is an affable sort, the kind of guy who can temper bad news with a joke. It's a talent he invokes often. This morning, I-75 southbound is a horrific mess; the 15-mile stretch between Wade Green Road and the Perimeter takes a good hour. "My condolences," he tells WGST-AM listeners. "If you work with folks coming from Cobb County, give them a wide berth when they get in."
Kalland prides himself on knowing alternatives when conventional routes are backed up. But even he was at a loss two Fridays ago, after a double fatality on I-85 closed part of the highway, spilling motorists onto every surface street for miles around. He shrugs. "Finally, I was just sending them to 285, telling them to take the long way."
"People just keep pouring into this place," says Kalland, who originally intended to be a sportswriter but found traffic was the real story in Atlanta. He's been at it for 14 years. The routine is set now: a pre-dawn commute from his home in Conyers, a two-hour spin in the chopper, more radio reports from the hangar, lunch, a nap in the lounge, then back up in the chopper to monitor the overfed beast that is Atlanta's highway system. "I don't see it getting better. The best we can hope for is that it doesn't get worse."