The Second Crash of Francis Gary Powers
August 1, 2007 4:26 PM   Subscribe

Speaking of TV helicopter crashes, exactly thirty years ago today, Francis Gary Powers fell from the sky for the second time. The first time was on May 1st, 1960, when the U-2 spy plane he was piloting [previously on MeFi] was shot down over Soviet Russia, a major international incident and one that many never forgave him for surviving. Years later, he was pilot/reporter of L.A. TV's "Original Telecopter", and returning from a long trip covering brush fies in Santa Barbara, the chopper ran out of fuel. Some (including me) say he might have survived if he hadn't made last-second maneuvers to avoid people on the ground. He is remembered.
posted by wendell (22 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Personal disclaimer: In 1977, I was employed at KGIL, the radio station that first hired him as an airborne traffic reporter after he lost his job as a test pilot. I never worked with him directly, and only met him once, but I was 'hanging out' in the station's newsroom when the crash happened and was one of the first to know. I helped assemble an on-air tribute that aired the next morning.
posted by wendell at 4:28 PM on August 1, 2007

Strange that the tail rotor came off if the helo ran out of gas?
posted by A189Nut at 4:31 PM on August 1, 2007

I believe that was considered caused by the last-second maneuvering under failing power... they just aren't designed to do that.
posted by wendell at 4:38 PM on August 1, 2007

I had never even heard about this. Thanks wendell.
posted by vronsky at 4:44 PM on August 1, 2007

It's either deeply ironic or mighty suspicious (serious conspiracy fodder) that this guy flew and survived extremely dangerous military sorties, and then went on to die from something as mundane as insufficient fuel.

Sounds like the guy led a pretty noble life, but continually pushed his luck, which finally ran out.
posted by phrontist at 5:00 PM on August 1, 2007

If anyone's from St. Louis, you probably remember Bob Richards.

The big joke was that this was his flightplan: ↑ ↓
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 5:09 PM on August 1, 2007

I thought KTLA had the first "Tele-Copter", and that it was piloted by none other than Hal Fishman.
posted by evilcolonel at 5:17 PM on August 1, 2007

posted by YoBananaBoy at 5:25 PM on August 1, 2007

What's this about "many not forgiving him" for surviving?

I'm genuinely curious. And a bit ignorant. Not snarking.
posted by Doofus Magoo at 5:28 PM on August 1, 2007

What's this about "many not forgiving him" for surviving?

It was assumed that the U-2 flew so high that not only would it be immune to any attempts to shoot it down, but in the unlikely event it was shot down, the pilot was even more unlikely to survive.

And so, when Powers' U-2 was shot down, the CIA & White House made the assumption that Powers was dead.

They were rather surprised and embarrassed to find that he was still alive.
posted by flug at 5:47 PM on August 1, 2007

What's this about "many not forgiving him" for surviving?

There was an unwritten expectation that CIA pilots were to take their own lives if threatened by enemy capture (this following Powers' failure to activate the U-2 self-desctruct mechanism). Basically, Powers was criticized for not acting like a spy.

I remember his 1977 KNBC helicopter crash and local news anchor Jess Marlow fighting back tears (he only could mutter out a "damnit!") as he reported the story live.
posted by quartzcity at 5:48 PM on August 1, 2007

Thanks quartzcity, you explained it better than I could. The fact that Powers was alive and much of the plane was intact made it a big propaganda coup for the USSR, so a lot of people were not happy with him. It was acknowledged several times since that he did not reveal any sensitive information during his interrogation (but then, the USSR was complying with those danged Geneva Conventions). But when he wrote and got published a memoir in 1970, it opened old wounds and there were political pressure on Lockheed that probably cost him his test pilot job there. Dick Spangler, the News Director at KGIL radio was a private pilot and knew Powers so he hired him to do traffic reports via a small plane.

And the "Original Telecopter" was sold by KTLA (Channel 5) to KNBC (Channel 4) in 1976 (the owner of KTLA at that time needed the money more than the prestige). Then they hired Powers and trained him to fly a helicopter (which he never had before). Jess Marlow was Powers' best friend at KNBCTV, and spoke at his funeral (a public event with over a thousand people attending - I was in the overflow crowd outside the church). Since then, both stations have gotten new choppers and KTLA is using the "Telecopter" brand name again.
posted by wendell at 6:49 PM on August 1, 2007

Wow, what a tragedy. I was kind of a war-plane buff as a kid and so I'd heard all about Powers and the U-2 debacle. I had no idea this happened, though. Great (and sad) post.
posted by invitapriore at 6:52 PM on August 1, 2007

A bit off-topic, but I found this story of how the PLAAF shot down five U-2 aircraft from the Black Cat Squadron based in Taiwan fascinating.
posted by Abiezer at 7:02 PM on August 1, 2007

His son signed my copy of Eliot's The Wasteland.

Yeah, I know. Weird.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:15 PM on August 1, 2007

Nice post. Learned something new today.
posted by spock at 8:59 PM on August 1, 2007

Fascinating post!

I knew about Power's getting shot down, but had no idea people were annoyed that he had the audacity to survive. Thanks for that.

At least he died doing what he loved. I have a friend that is a helicopter pilot -- dying in a crash is not something he wants to happen, but he'd rather die that way than of old age (he's a private test pilot sometimes, too, I think it runs in their blood).
posted by teece at 8:59 PM on August 1, 2007

Thanks for the background, Wendell.

I'm also reminded of the tragic on-air death of 66WNBC traffic reporter Jane Dornacker and her pilot in 1986.
posted by evilcolonel at 9:13 PM on August 1, 2007

And, I'm incorrect. The pilot survived the WNBC crash. Not sure why I typed that.
posted by evilcolonel at 9:18 PM on August 1, 2007

Very interesting post. My grandfather flow U2's at the time and my mom says they lived a few blocks from the Powers' at the time. I had never heard about the helicopter crash, though.
posted by p3on at 1:27 AM on August 2, 2007

Oops, minus the redundancy
posted by p3on at 1:28 AM on August 2, 2007

For several days after May 1st, 1960, Air Force mechanic Kenneth Carpenter was grilled relentlessly to ascertain whether he was responsible, through sabotage or incompetence, for Powers' crash. In 1967, he was killed in a crash on takeoff in Greenland, while serving as the flight engineer for a civilian C130. My grandmother always thought the CIA had something to do with it. I expect they did, but that it was just that they owned the plane. [source: family history]
posted by lodurr at 11:04 AM on August 2, 2007

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