Back to Top

Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

Tag Archives: airplane

Plane Lands on Car

On November 18, 1951, in Salt Lake City, Utah, 47-year-old pilot Joe Wardle was flying his Piper Cub when the plane’s engine iced up and conked out.

He searched for a flat area to land and spotted a nearby highway that he could use as a runway. Without any engine power, Joe glided the plane safely down and made what he felt was a nearly perfect landing. He kept waiting for the plane to roll to a stop, but instead it kept going and going at a steady speed.

It took Joe a minute or two to figure out what was going on. When he finally peered around the nose of the plane, it became obvious. He had landed on the roof of a car driven by Ray Perry of Riverton, Utah. Somehow, the landing gear had hooked right on to the trunk of Perry’s car.

When Perry realized what had happened, he immediately slowed down and stopped his car.

Both men got out of their vehicles and were glad to see that neither was injured. Their next move was to lift the airplane off of the top of the car.

The automobile was barely damaged: it had just two little nicks on the trunk. As for the plane, it had a broken propeller and its landing gear was cracked.

My guess is that Wardle also opted to get that engine repaired…

Perhaps Joe Wardle's landing problems would have been solved if he had purchased one of these Aerocars.
Perhaps Joe Wardle’s landing problems would have been solved if he had purchased one of these Aerocars. This image appeared on page 38 of the November 1948 issue of Flying Magazine.
 

Podcast 224: Flying Blind

On March 22, 1952, 25-year-old Lt. (jg) Howard Thayer was flying as part of a bombing mission to destroy enemy rail and truck lines near the strategically important harbor of Wonsan, North Korea. Then, suddenly, he heard a scream come over his radio, “I’m blind! For God’s sake, help me; I’m blind!”

Thayer immediately looked all around for a plane that was trailing smoke, but saw none. Above him he spotted a Douglas AD Skyraider that appeared to be headed nearly straight upward toward the clouds. It was a dark, overcast day and Thayer knew that if this plane was being piloted by the man who made that plea, he would surely lose sight of the aircraft once it entered the clouds. Thayer needed to act quickly.

“Plane in trouble, rock your wings. Plane in trouble, rock your wings.”

Initially there was no response, but then he observed a repeated back-and-forth rocking motion. Yet, the plane continued its upward climb and was just seconds from disappearing into the cloud canopy.

“Put your nose down – put your nose down.” Thayer continued, “Push over. I’m coming up.”

The Skyraider was still climbing as Thayer pushed full throttle to catch up with the plane. As he approached the aircraft, he realized that this out-of-control bomber was not being flown by just any anonymous pilot. Instead, he was 22-year-old Ensign Kenneth A. Schechter, who just happened to be Howie Thayer’s roommate on the USS Valley Forge, the aircraft carrier from which both had launched. The two had trained together at the Alameda Naval Air Force base and had since become the closest of friends.

“This is Thayer – this is Thayer! Put your nose down quick! Get it over!”

As Thayer pulled in close to the plane, he could see that Schechter was gravely wounded. An enemy anti-aircraft shell had exploded near his head and shattered the cockpit canopy. Ken was barely conscious and was struggling to talk over his radio as the air whipped past him and the loud engine roar drowned out all other sound. Kind of like driving a car at 200 mph (322 km/h) with the top down, but in far, far worse condition.

Yet, somehow Ken was finally starting to make sense of what his friend Thayer was telling him to do.

“You’re doing all right now. Pull back a little; we can level off now.”

Schechter pushed his stick forward and relying solely on his sense of how gravity pulling on his body, he was able to level his plane out.

As Howie Thayer pulled within 100-feet (approximately 30-meters) of Schechter, he could now see how badly injured his face was. Fragments from the blast had caught under Ken’s eye and ripped the skin all the way across to his right cheek. He was bleeding profusely and had lost total vision. Ken Schechter was flying blind.

Thayer thought to himself, “My God, My God! How is he alive?”

Schechter was struggling to figure out what had happened and decided that if he could get some fresh air, maybe he could think more clearly. He reached for the canopy release lever and pulled on it. Nothing happened. He tried again and still nothing. That was when he finally realized that the canopy had been totally blown away. His next move was to reach for his canteen. After removing the top, Ken poured water over his face. This cleared the blood away from his eyes just long enough so that he could see the instrument panel in front of him. And, then, in an instant his vision was gone.

Schechter blurted over the radio, “Get me down Howie. Get me down, Howie.”

Thayer replied, “Roger.” He then spotted a partial bombload under Schechter’s wings. “Drop your ordnance.” Howie understood the request and he released the bombs.

Their next move was to circle back and head over the bomb-line into safe territory. Their initial destination was an island known as Yo-Do, located in Wonsan harbor, which was often used as a station during helicopter rescue missions. Thayer quickly realized that Schechter was so severely injured that there was no way they would make the distance to Yo-Do.

Thayer constantly scanned the shoreline for American ships, knowing that once he sighted them, he could be certain that they were back in friendly territory. He radioed, “We’re approaching Wonsan now. Get ready to bail out.”

Schechter refused to do so. He knew that, even under the best of conditions, jumping into the choppy waters was a risky move. In fact, during his second mission in Korea, he had flown near pilot Lt. Cmdr. Tom Pugh, whose plane had been hit. Pugh landed on the water and signaled to Schechter that he was safe before flying off, but two hours later Pugh was dead. Pugh’s life jacket had failed, his immersion suit had leaked, he never made it to his liferaft, and the helicopter sent to pick him up had failed. Ken Schechter was in far worse shape and knew that he had no chance of surviving in the icy water below. He radioed back to Thayer, “Negative. Negative. Not gonna bail out. Get me down.”

The decision was made to head for an American airbase nicknamed Geronimo that was about 30 miles (48 km) south of the enemy line.

“We’re at the battle line now, Ken. Will head you for Geronimo. Hold on, boy!” Thayer then questioned, “Can you make it, Ken?” To which he replied, “Get me down, you miserable ape, or you’ll have to inventory my gear,” referring to the fact that each had designated the other to handle their affairs should one of them be killed in action.

As Thayer directed Ken to turn his plane right, he could see Schechter’s head fall forward and then as he attempted to straighten it upward, his head flopped over to the left. It was clear that there was no way that he was going to make it Geronimo. Thayer began to search for a place for Schechter to put his plane down, whether that be a rice paddy, a beach, or a flat field.

He spotted a clear spot ahead and as Thayer got closer, he realized that it was an abandoned airstrip that had been nicknamed the Jersey Bounce. While there were no aircraft there, Thayer observed that a few small buildings still remained. Hopefully that also meant that a few men remained behind to care for the facility and that they would be able to get Schechter immediately to a military hospital, should he survive the landing. With a short runway less than 2,000 feet (610 meters) in length and with Schechter severely injured, the odds were clearly stacked against him.

“We’re approaching Jersey Bounce, Ken. Will make a two-seven-zero turn and set you down.”

Schechter replied, “Roger. Let’s go.”

As they approached the runway, Thayer began to calmly provide his friend with exacting instructions. “Left wing down slowly, nose over easy. Little more.” He continued, “Gear down.”

Schechter abruptly replied, “To hell with that!” He had remembered that in an emergency landing such as this, it was far safer to land on the plane’s belly. To use the landing gear could risk ripping off one of the wings or possibly flipping the plane over.

Thayer understood. “Roger. Gear up.” He continued, “We’re headed straight. Hundred yards to runway. You’re 50 feet off the ground. Pull back a little. Easy. Easy. That’s good. You’re level. You’re OK. You’re 30 feet off the ground. You’re OK. Twenty feet. Kill it a little. You’re setting down. OK. OK. OK. Cut.”

As Schechter tensed up while awaiting contact with the ground, the plane landed on its belly and slid along the gravel runway. About forty-five minutes after being hit, his plane came to a stop about halfway down the runway. Thayer radioed, “You’re on the ground,” and then began to circle round and round to make sure that his friend was okay. As Schechter clumsily pulled himself out of his cockpit, Thayer could see a car race down the runway toward the plane. Two men helped Ken into the vehicle and sped off toward one of the buildings near the end of the runway.

Howie Thayer’s job was done and he headed back to the Valley Forge and landed about twenty minutes later. As soon as he climbed out of his cockpit, Thayer was puzzled to have a number of senior pilots and officers come right out to meet him. He quickly learned that nearly everyone aboard the carrier had been listening nervously to the voice transmissions between the two pilots as the whole rescue unfolded. In addition, a transcription machine had recorded everything, providing for a permanent record of exactly what the two had said.

As for Ken Schechter, he was immediately transported by helicopter from Jersey Bounce to Geronimo. Doctors removed some of the larger pieces of shrapnel, but determined that he was in need of a skilled eye surgeon and had him flown to naval hospital ship Consolation, which was anchored in the Pusan harbor in South Korea at the time. From there, it was on to hospitals in Japan, Oakland, and San Diego. In all, he would spend six months in various military hospitals. While he recovered vision in his left eye, he never regained sight in his right, which meant a permanent end to his military career as a pilot.

Two years later, their story became the basis for the Hollywood movie “Men of the Fighting Lady.” Thayer was portrayed by Van Johnson and Dewey Martin played the part of Schechter. As one would expect, the film to great license with the story, which included Schechter’s plane landing back on the carrier in a giant flaming wreck.

Interestingly, the plane that Shechter had crash landed had its propeller replaced, flown back to the Valley Forge for repairs, and was then placed back in service.

Howie Thayer would once again perform a similar rescue on June 27, 1953. This time a plane piloted by Lieutenant John J. Chambers was hit, not only wounding him in the arms and legs, but damaging his radio and flight instruments. Thayer had to use hand signals to guide Chambers to a safe landing on an airstrip some 40-miles (65 km) away.

Sadly, in January of 1961, while on a night mission, Thayer was guiding a fellow pilot whose plane had experienced an electrical system failure. While on landing approach, both pilots crashed into the Mediterranean Sea. Their remains were never to be recovered. For all of his heroic actions, Howard Thayer was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 2009.

On June 28, 1995, Ken Schechter was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Howie Thayer’s three adult children were present as he received the award aboard the aircraft carrier Constellation in San Diego. During his acceptance speech, Ken stated to them, “I hope you will see this ceremony as your ceremony, because that’s certainly the way I feel about it.”

Kenneth Allen Schechter was born in Harlem, NY on January 31, 1930, the son of European immigrants. After graduating from Stanford and the Harvard Business School, he spent most of his career as an insurance agent. He died of complications due to prostate cancer on December 11, 2013 at the age of 83.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

 

Man Sucked into Jet Engine

On May 14, 1956 Airman Third Class Fred E. Higinbotham was working with his fellow Air Force crew to refuel an F-86F Sabre jet on the island of Okinawa in Japan. Their goal was to move quickly and get the jet back in the air as soon as possible.

Higinbotham’s job was to secure a static line cable onto the nose gear of the plane as soon as it stopped. This line prevented the buildup of static electricity which could produce sparks and potentially ignite the fumes produced during the refueling process.

The Air Force had strict rules in place that prohibited anyone from getting too close to the intake duct of the fighter’s jet engine. Since this was their last servicing job for the day, the crew was anxious to get the job done.

As part of the post-flight procedure, the pilot advanced the throttle to 65% power, which he was supposed to do for a period of two minutes before shutting the engine down. Just as this was happening, Higinbotham felt the tug of the jet’s intake on his back, but continued to hold on to the static cable. He didn’t realize it at the time, but he had gotten too close to the engine’s intake.

Suddenly, his hat was pulled off of his head and Higginbotham instinctively turned around to grab it. The next thing you know, he was flying through the air and was sucked right into the jet engine. One would have expected Higginbotham to have been torn to shreds by the blades of the engine, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, he was stopped by the engine’s power take-off case cover, which projected outward from the blades in a cone shape. He used all his might to keep away from the whirling blades, which were just 6” (15 cm) from his head.

About thirty seconds after the pilot advanced the throttle, he felt a bump in the engine’s operation. He also spotted a mechanic frantically waving a rag in the air to get his attention. That worked. The pilot immediately cut power to the engine and the rotors began to slow down.

Just as Higginbotham started to back out of the engine, someone grabbed his legs and pulled him out of the engine completely. Amazingly, he still had the static cable in his hands, although it was wrapped twice around both his waist and legs. Later investigation determined that the cable had become fully extended when Higginbotham was sucked into the engine and that most likely saved his life.

Higginbotham’s injuries were minor: he had some cable burns and minor abrasions, but that’s it. He was released from the hospital and was back on the job the very next day.

Fred Higinbotham was sucked into a jet engine and survived.
Image of Fred Higinbotham from the February 3, 1957 publication of the Sunday magazine American Weekly on page 15.
 

Held on for Dear Life

When Lieutenant Lewis J. Connors was given the okay by the control tower operator in Chicago on April 30, 1938 to take off in the Army BY-9 monoplane that he was piloting, nothing initially seemed out of the ordinary.

That was until the air traffic controller noticed something attached to the outside of the plane. No, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He grabbed his binoculars. Yes, he wasn’t crazy. There was a man clinging to the outside of the plane as it approached nearly 1,000 feet (0.3 kilometer) in altitude. He frantically radioed Lieutenant Connors: “You’ve a passenger astride the fuselage. Please set down.”

Connors immediately circled the aircraft around and made a smooth landing. And that’s when Private First Class Frank H. Krebs let go of the airplane and fell to the ground, his fingers white from the firm grip that he had on the smooth fuselage.

Krebs summarized for the press what had happened, “There was a passenger on that ship headed for St. Louis. He had forgotten to sign required papers releasing the army from responsibility during the flight.

“I grabbed the releases and ran for the plane. I’d just stepped on the wing when the control tower gave Lieutenant Connors the signal to take off. I was too startled to jump until too late. My one chance was to slide onto the fuselage.

“I did that, and I’ll bet no cow puncher ever rode a bronco with more determination. Next time I hope that they’ve give me a saddle.”

Lieutenant Lewis J. Connors
This image of Lieutenant Lewis J. Connors appeared in the May 1, 1938 issue of the Chicago Tribune on page 3.