At some point within the past year, I reached out to Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten for a comment from the team about something. I can’t remember what the issue was, but I can vividly remember what Lauten said: “I’ll have to get back to you. Mr. Rooney is flying his plane.”
I wasn’t aware of Rooney’s fascination with flying, an interest he apparently acquired after former Steelers coach Chuck Noll developed an interest in aviation. An obituary from Bob Labriola of Steelers.com contains a story about an issue that arose while Rooney was flying back from the team’s training camp at St. Vincent College in 2000.
“The mechanics who had just rebuilt the engine of the Bonanza either did not put the alternator on properly or installed a defective unit,” Rooney had said. “I had no problem flying to Latrobe, but on the way back I ran into trouble. The lights on my instrument panel began to blink off. All electric needles shimmied side-to-side, then off. The radio went dead. I switched on the standby alternator. Nothing. The landing gear was almost all the way up but not completely retracted. I couldn’t fly the plane and reach around to the back of the seat on the passenger side to wind the hand crank that would normally extend the [landing] gear. I just couldn’t do it. I called the tower on my cell phone but got voice mail. This was not good.”
He instead dialed 911, and the operator initially didn’t believe that Dan Rooney was on the line. Instructed to burn as much fuel as possible before trying to land, Rooney circled until sunset and then eased the plane to a stop on a patch of grass between the runway and taxiway at the Allegheny County Airport.
A press conference the next day included this exchange with a reporter, via Labriola.
Q: Instead of trying to land in the grass, did you ever consider having the airport lay down foam on the runway and land the plane that way?
Rooney: That was an option I considered, but I decided landing in the grass was a better option.
Q: Isn’t it true that if you request foam on the runway, then you have to pay for the foam to be cleaned up afterwards?
Rooney: I can guarantee you that the decisions I was making at the time had nothing to do with me trying to save a couple of bucks.