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Podcast #140 – The Flying Housewife

 

Let’s suppose you wanted to take an airplane flight around the globe. And, since you are probably like me and don’t have access to high-speed military jets, you would need to make the flight using commercial airlines. That means they would have to deal with the hassles of delayed flights, waiting in airport terminals for connecting flights, dealing with immigration along the way, and all of the other hassles associated with flying. Just how long do you think it would take you? Could you do it in a day? In two days? Well, one man has set the record for doing so. If you hang around for a bit, I will let you know just how long it took him at the end of this podcast.

Of course, flying around the world today is far easier than it was in the early days of aviation. One of the earlier pioneers in flying was a British woman named Richarda Morrow-Tait, whose efforts to fly around the world are nearly forgotten today.

Born Prudence Richarda Evelyn Routh on November 22, 1923, she wasn’t exactly what her father had hoped for. “As far back as I can remember, it was always said that my father was so angry when I turned out to be a girl that he refused to speak to me on the day I was born. He’d already had two girls and I was to be called Richard – that’s how I was christened Richarda. So I was a third daughter. But no matter how depressing that could very well turn out to be – I did have one terrific consolation. I was born on a Thursday.” We shall see in a short bit how being born on a Thursday would play an important part in her life.

Colorized photograph of Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait.
Colorized photograph of Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait.

In 1943, Richarda, who went by the nickname of Dikki, was working as a temporary stenographer and assigned to assist a mechanical engineer named Norman Morrow-Tait who worked in the British government’s Ministry of Supply at Cambridge  Norman was more than a decade older than the redheaded Dikki, but the two immediately hit it off and were soon married.

Dikki long had an interest in learning to fly an airplane and in 1945, her husband suggested that she should do so. She first took to the air in January 1946 and continued to take lessons on weekends. Dikki soon became the first woman to obtain a civil flying license in Britain since the war had ended.

Right around the time that she began her flying lessons, Dikki became pregnant. On October 10, 1946, she gave birth to a baby girl who the couple named Anna Victoria Airy Morrow-Tait. Yet, motherhood was not about to stop Dikki from taking to the sky.

On May 31, 1948, 24-year-old Richarda Morrow-Tait announced to the world that she was going to attempt to be the first woman to fly an airplane around the world. To do so, she purchased a surplus Percival Proctor IV, a 210 hp, single-engine plane which had been used as a communications aircraft during the war. For the round-the-world trip, it was outfitted with extra fuel tanks, which gave it an estimated range of 1850 miles (2977 km). Dikki named the plane “Thursday’s Child,” both because she was born a Thursday and for the verse in the folk song Mondays Child:

Monday’s child is fair of face

Tuesday’s child is full of grace

Wednesday’s child is full of woe

Thursday’s child has far to go…

And boy did she have far to go…

While Dikki had mastered the flying of the plane, she was in need of a good navigator. While the Morrow-Taits were at a party they bumped into 25-year-old Michael Townsend, who had been a childhood friend of Dikki’s. At the time, Townsend was a geology student at Cambridge and a former member of the Royal Air Force. He agreed to accompany Dikki on the flight and spent four months preparing for it.

Their first setback occurred on August 14, 1948, while Dikki was practicing for the flight. While piloting another plane, Dikki crash-landed at the airport in Cambridge. She was unhurt, but this event seemed to cast a dark shadow on what was to come.

On Wednesday, August 18, 1948, as her husband and daughter Anna watched from the ground, Richarda Morrow-Tait and Michael Townsend lifted off from Cambridge and flew to Croyden Airport in London to officially begin their flight around the globe. They anticipated completing the flight in six weeks. Norman Morrow-Tait told the press “I have given her every encouragement to make this flight.” He continued, “I used to fly myself and know how much flying can mean to anyone. Dikki is a wonderful person full of determination and courage.”

Unfortunately, upon landing in Marseille, France, visibility was poor and the propeller, undercarriage, and one of the wings were damaged during landing. The next day, she announced that she was abandoning her attempted flight and would return to England once repairs to the plane were completed. Well, that decision did not last long. Two days later, on Friday, August 20, Dikki announced that she would continue on with the planned flight.

Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait and her navigator Michael Tait.
Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait and her navigator Michael Tait. Image appeared on page 1 the November 27, 1948 issue of the Edmonton Journal.

On Saturday, August 28, she finally was able to take off from Marseille and successfully landed later that same day in Malta. From there it was on to Cyprus, Iraq, Bahrain, Sharjah (United Arab Emirates), Karachi in Pakistan, and Delhi in India.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly until September 7. That is when her airplane was damaged during landing at Dum Dum airport in Calcutta. Dikki and Townsend would have to wait seven weeks for parts to arrive and for the plane to be repaired. So much for completing their flight in six weeks.

Finally, on October 22, they lifted off for Rangoon (today Yangon in Myanmar), followed by successful hops to Vietnam, Hong Kong, and five stops in Japan as she piloted the plane up the Japanese archipelago. 

Her next flight was going to the longest over water: from Hokkaido, Japan to Shemya Island, located at the western tip of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Due to the great length of the flight, Dikki agreed to be escorted by a US Air Force B-17 bomber. Dikki and Townsend took off from Hokkaido on November 3 and encountered several storms along their flight path. At about 9 hours into their flight, the B-17 lost contact with the single-engine plane. Were Dikki and Townsend okay? Did their plane go down at sea? No one could say for sure until they surprisingly landed the plane on Shemya Island. Total flight time: 13 hours and 20 minutes. It turns out that they had lost contact with their escort plane after their radio was knocked out as they passed through a storm.  Dikki told reporters, “Over the Pacific, we landed with only five gallons of gas, or 20 minutes flying time. I think we ran the last of it entirely Ave Marias.”

Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait.
Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait. Image appeared on page 1 the August 13, 1949 issue of the Edmonton Journal.

On November 11, they left Shemya and headed east along the Aleutian chain. They stopped at Adak and Cold Bay as they made their way to Anchorage. As they approached the Elmendorf Air Force Base there, they encountered thick fog, which greatly reduced visibility. To make matters worse, the lights on the field had failed. Two B-17’s and a Civil Aeronautics Authority airplane took off to help Dikki find the field. She made several passes with the plane but was unable to land. To help bring the plane in, cars were sent out to line the runway so that Dikki could use their headlights as a guide. An ambulance and rescue vehicles were put on alert.  Once again, she successfully landed the plane.  “It’s sure good to be down. I only had enough gas left to circle the field twice more.” Dicki added, “They talked us in three times before we made it and I was extremely frightened. I didn’t care how I landed as long as I got down.” 

They were delayed for ten days in Anchorage because their plane was experiencing engine trouble, most likely due to the extreme cold. Once repairs were complete, Dikki took off for Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon territory. Since there was concern over the engine’s reliability, the decision was made to follow the highways just in case they would need to make an emergency landing. Sadly, on what just happened to be Dikki’s twenty-fifth birthday, that was exactly what happened.  Just prior to noon on November 22, 1948, sub-zero weather caused her plane’s carburetor to ice up and she was forced to crash-land near Tanacross, Alaska. The army plane that accompanied her dropped emergency supplies, while the Alaska Highway Patrol picked up the flyers and drove them into Tanacross.  The two were uninjured, but her plane lay in ruins along the Alaskan Highway. Both the plane’s landing gear and the wings were severely damaged.  Low on funds, they could neither afford to truck the plane to Canada for repairs nor ship the necessary parts to Alaska. Dikki stated, “What I need for a birthday present is a miracle.”

At first, Dikki said she would abandon her plan to complete the flight, but she soon changed her mind. Dikki stated, “Personally I would love to go back home, but I will not abandon the flight under any circumstances. My biggest problem is obtaining finances, not securing the parts for my plane.” She estimated that the cost to repair the plane would be around $2000 (approximately $21,500 today), money that she did not have.

A trucker in Fairbanks offered to crate up the plane and ship it down to Edmonton for repairs, but it would take some time for it to be dismantled and haul it down there. In the meantime, on November 27, Dikki and Townsend were flown aboard an American B-17 bomber to Edmonton. Shortly after that, Townsend decided to return to England to complete his studies at Cambridge University. Dikki told reporters, “When Michael leaves me I will have to get another navigator or go on alone but I definitely will fly home.”

It wouldn’t be until January 24, 1949, that her wrecked plane would arrive in Edmonton. The damage was far worse than she had anticipated. Dikki stated, “I was shocked when I inspected the plane.” A repair shop inspected the place and estimated the cost of repair to be $3800 (which is nearly $41,000 today.) 

Nearly penniless at this point, Dikki could not imagine how she could possibly earn that much money. Since the time of the crash, she had earned small sums working in an Alaskan nightclub, doing some public speaking, and even modeling, something that she had done before she had married. But none of these jobs could earn enough to pay for the repair of her plane. She made the decision to abandon the plane in Edmonton.

This does not mean that Dikki had given up on her dream to fly around the world. “I am scouring the continent in an effort to find a company which will give me a plane to fly back to England for advertising purposes.”

In mid-February, she hitchhiked back up to Alaska to raise some additional funds. Unfortunately, along the way, someone stole all the money she had managed to accumulate up until that point. To make matters worse, US immigration officials there denied her readmission into Alaska. Ultimately, they granted her a two-week stay.

Colorized photograph of Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait.
Colorized photograph of Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait.

In early March, she headed for Seattle, Washington. On March 21, it was announced that, with the help of a Seattle dentist and others, a replacement airplane had been located. It was a surplus Army BT-13 Vultee Valiant which had been sold off at the end of World War II. While the cost for the plane was $600 (approximately $6500 today), the catch was that, since it formally was a US military plane, it could only be owned by a US citizen and piloted by an American license holder. Those technicalities could be easily overcome, but the real problem for Dikki was raising the $600.

It was in Seattle that she also found her new navigator. He was Jack Ellis, a native Londoner and former RAF navigator. Ellis saw this opportunity as an inexpensive way to go back to England and see his wife. He said, “It’s a flight I want to finish. I want to go back to England for a visit.”

By the end of March, Dikki had raised the money needed to purchase the plane. Surprisingly, two different Vancouver residents offered her $300 each. In addition, a Victoria couple sent in a check for $50 to The Vancouver Sun.  “I am very grateful to Vancouver people. I couldn’t have done it without them.” She added, “I have my American license. I shall start my familiarization flights at Boeing Field Friday.” In mid-April, Dikki paid the $600 for a plane that she could never own. She named it “Next Thursday’s Child.”

Richarda "Dikki" Morrow- Tait's airplane "Next Thursday's Child."
Richarda “Dikki” Morrow- Tait’s airplane “Next Thursday’s Child.” Image appeared on page 1 the August 13, 1949 issue of the Edmonton Journal.

On April 16, 1949, she returned to Edmonton so that technicians could remove the extra fuel tank from her scrapped plane and install it in her new machine. Two days later, she took off from Edmonton and headed right back to Alaska, circled over the spot where she had crashed, and then began her journey back to England. 

Would everything go smoothly after this? Of course not. Unfortunately, the airplane’s fuel tanks were leaking, so she was forced to make the trip up to Alaska in small hops of two to three hours each. Eight days later she was back in Edmonton to have the fuel tanks repaired. That would ground her there for the next twenty-five days.

Finally, at 9 a.m. on Thursday, May 19, 1949, Dikki and her navigator Jack Ellis were cleared for takeoff. After crossing the border and clearing customs in Cut Bank, Montana, they made a short layover in Williston, North Dakota before taking off for Minneapolis, Minnesota.

This time everything seemed to be going smoothly. That was until she landed at Wold-Chamberlain Field (now the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport) in Minneapolis. On Saturday, May 21, customs inspectors there ordered her plane grounded “until further orders.” Stout chains and a padlock were placed on the airplane. Initially, agents there said that they had no idea why that order had been issued. Dikki later learned that the papers that had been filled out back in Cut Bank, Montana were not in order. She said, “There are lots of rules and regulations that have to be complied with. This will be straightened out.” It turns out that federal regulations at the time forbid taking an American airplane outside of the United States for a period longer than six months. After being delayed for two days, Dikki was able to post guarantees that the plane would be returned and it was released into her possession. She resumed her flight on Tuesday, May 24.

Chains being applied to Richarda "Dikki" Morrow-Tait's airplane in Minneapolis.
Chains being applied to Richarda “Dikki” Morrow-Tait’s airplane in Minneapolis. Image appeared on page 2 the May 21, 1949 issue of the Minneapolis Star.

Two days later, on May 26, her plane was impounded once again in Chicago. This time, the Civil Aeronautics Administration claimed that Dikki’s registration for the airplane had been improperly completed. It indicated that she was the owner, which was forbidden because she was not a United States citizen. Also, they refused to issue a certificate of airworthiness because they deemed the extra fuel tank as being unsafe.

This would prove to be quite the predicament because not only was her airplane grounded, but it was low on fuel and Dikki didn’t even have enough money to pay for her meals. Could this be the end of her round-the-world flight? Just what would she do next?

The world will get to know the answer in the early morning hours of May 28, 1949. That was when Dikki and Jack Ellis snuck out to the hangar where their plane was being stored, hopped aboard, basically Dikki stuck her middle finger up at the entire situation, and took off for who knows where… Dikki had previously stated that her next stop would be Buffalo, New York, but many thought that she would hop over the border into Canada to avoid any legal consequences for her actions. Charles Biggs, an inspector for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, stated that she “has created an international incident, and is in violation of four rules.”

She soon landed the plane in Toronto, but Canadian authorities ordered her to go back to the United States. She stated, “They weren’t very interested in me. They told me I’d better get back to the United States in my plane.”

Richarda “Dikki” Morrow- Tait. Image appeared on page 1 the May 21, 1949 issue of the Star Tribune.

Instead of going back to Chicago, Dikki headed for her original destination of Buffalo. There, she was informed by the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) that she needed to meet five different requirements before they would allow her to continue with her flight. First, she needed to sell her plane back to the Seattle resident who had sold it to her so that it could be registered in the name of a US citizen. Second, Dikki needed to obtain an export license. Next, she was required to obtain CAA approval for the installation of an additional gas tank and, once that was obtained, a CAA engineer would need to come from New York to inspect the installation, and finally, Dikki needed to obtain a certificate of airworthiness for her airplane. 

As Dikki worked to meet all of these CAA requirements, a new problem arose. Jack Ellis’ wife had arrived in Toronto from England, so he decided that it was time to jump ship, leaving Dikki once again without a navigator. Luckily, her first navigator, Michael Townsend, had recently completed his studies at Cambridge and he was willing to fly to Buffalo and rejoin Dikki on her quest to become the first woman to pilot a plane around the world. “He came out to meet me – which was pretty big of him because he flew by commercial airlines and that cost a lot.”

Flight navigator Michael Townsend.
Flight navigator Michael Townsend. Image appeared on page 1 the August 13, 1949 issue of the Edmonton Journal.

An anonymous benefactor provided Dikki with the $300 that she needed to pay off the fines that were levied on her for violation of federal regulations. She was finally able to resume flying on July 9.  Her first stop would be in Montreal, where she was once again grounded because her airplane was considered experimental, which was not permitted to fly over open water in Canada.  She was ordered to return to the United States.  So, she hopped back across the border and landed at the airport in Burlington, Vermont. They refused her admission into the country because her passport was not in order. Dikki had no choice but to fly back to Montréal. It wouldn’t be until August 1, after this latest legal mass was cleared up, that she was able to clear customs in Burlington and fly to Bangor, Maine. After two months of basically going nowhere, it finally seemed like she would be home soon.

From Bangor, she flew to Goose Bay in Labrador, Canada, and encountered more problems. Once again, Canadian authorities refused to allow Dikki to fly her plane over the Atlantic Ocean. She told the press, “The Canadian government refused to let me fly over their territory any longer.” She continued, “Department of transport officials told me to go on home and look after my baby. They said it would cost too much to start a search for me when I got lost.”

On August 12, the Royal Canadian Air Force sent one of its Lancaster bombers from Greenwood, Nova Scotia to escort Dikki’s plane back to Bangor, Maine. At 7:50 AM, Dikki piloted her plane down the runway and once she had gained enough altitude, the escort plane joined up with her. Not long into their flight, Dikki attempted to give the RAF plane the slip. She suddenly swung the plane’s nose around and changed course. Instead of heading for Maine, Dikki was now flying out over the Atlantic Ocean. For the next 6-½ hours, the bomber stayed right with her until she successfully landed her single-engine plane at Bluie West One, a United States airbase located in southern Greenland. She was now outside of Canadian jurisdiction, so the RAF bomber refueled and returned to the Canadian mainland.

Five days later, on August 17, a US Air Force B-17 escorted Dikki on a seven-hour flight from Greenland to Iceland. She landed the plane successfully and was almost home. Her husband Norman, who had been taking care of their daughter Anna for the past year, stated “I shall be very glad to see Dikki. But I shall be doubly glad to let her feed and bathe the baby. I’m tired of playing mother.” He added, “I am very proud of my wife. She is full of pep and very brave and I want her to finish this flight because it means so much to her. I fell in love with Dikki when she was seventeen and even then she was talking about this trip.”

After being held up in Iceland by bad weather, she took off on August 19, 1949, and landed back on European soil for refueling at Prestwick, Scotland. After going through customs and an inspection of the plane, she landed at Croydon Airport in London, making Richarda Morrow-Tait the first woman to ever pilot an airplane around the world, even if it took her one year and one day to complete the flight. As soon as she stepped out of the cockpit, her husband presented her with a bouquet of gladioli and the two embraced lovingly as photographers took pictures. She stated, “No woman had ever flown around the world, and I wanted to show what an ordinary housewife could do.”

Image of Richarda "Dikki" Morrow- Tait
Image of Richarda “Dikki” Morrow- Tait.

Dikki was uncertain what this flight around the world had cost, but her husband estimated it at $12,000 (nearly $225,000 today). While Dikki was technically required to return her airplane to the United States, she did not do so. Instead, she sold the plane to her Cambridge flying club who never used it and had it scrapped in 1952.

Yet, the story is not quite over. Dikki had acquired two mementos on her trip. The first was a tattoo that she had inked while in the United States. The second was even more surprising: she had not seen her husband in more than a year, yet she was pregnant. The father just happened to be her navigator Michael Townsend. She told the press, “We were to be away for six weeks. We reach Calcutta on the 18th day and we were stuck there for 6 weeks. It was there that Michael started being beastly to me.”

Their baby, Giles, would be born eight months after Dikki’s return to England. On June 10, 1950, Norman Morrow-Tait filed for divorce and soon Dikki was living off of public assistance. “I have an electric sewing machine. I make things for the neighbor’s kids for a few odd shillings. As for domesticity, I’ll meet any housewife with a cooker or a sweeper or down on my knees, even, and show her as good as she can give.”

On February 2, 1951, the divorce was granted, and the court ruled that Dikki would be responsible for the care and control of both her son Giles and daughter Anna. Yet, custody of the children was awarded to Norman Morrow-Tait. This meant that while Dikki would raise the children, her ex-husband had the final say in all decision-making.

Seven weeks later, on March 24, 1951, Dikki would marry Michael Townsend. They would remain married until her death from an incurable blood disease on December 17, 1982.

Dikki received very little acclaim for what she had done and her accomplishment is just a footnote to flying history today. Some have attributed this lack of recognition to her scandalous affair with Michael Townsend that grabbed bigger headlines than her round-the-world trip ever did.

I’ll leave you with one final quote from Dikki: “I had more trouble on the ground than I ever had in the air.”

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

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 124: 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.