In-flight rescue of a man hanged from an airplane
On May 15, 1941, US Navy Lt. WW Lowrey and John R. McCants performed an in-flight rescue of a Navy paratrooper, 2nd Lt. Walter S. Osipoff who was swinging under a Douglas R2D-1 au- above San Diego.
At 9:45 a.m., Walter Osipoff, a blonde haired lieutenant from Akron, Ohio, boarded a DC-2 transport for a routine parachute jump. Lt. Bill Lowery, a 34-year-old Navy test pilot from New Orleans, was already testing his observation plane. And John McCants, a 41-year-old husky chief aviation machinist companion from Jordan, MT, was checking out the plane he was to fly later. Before the sun was high in the midday sky, these three would be linked forever in one of the most spectacular aerial rescues in history.
Osipoff was a seasoned parachutist, a former star of wrestling and collegiate gymnastics. He had joined the National Guard then the Marines in 1938. He had already made more than 20 jumps on May 15, 1941.
That morning, his DC-2 takes off and heads to Kearney Mesa, where he will oversee the training jumps of 12 of his men. Three different canvas cylinders, containing ammunition and rifles, were also to be parachuted overboard as part of the exercise.
Nine of the men had already jumped when Osipoff, standing inches from the plane’s door, began to throw the last cargo container. Somehow, the automatic release lanyard of his backpack parachute wrapped around the cylinder and his parachute suddenly tore. He tried to grab the rapidly swelling silk, but the next thing he knew he had been shaken off the plane – sucked in with such force that the impact of his body tore a 2 Â½ foot gash in it. the DC-2’s aluminum fuselage.
Instead of sinking freely, Osipoff’s open parachute has now wrapped around the aircraft’s tail wheel. The chest strap and a leg strap of the parachute had broken; only the second leg strap still held – and it had slipped up to Osipoff’s ankle. One by one, 24 of the 28 lines between his precariously attached harness and the parachute broke. It was now hanging about 12 feet below, and 15 coming in behind, the tail of the plane. Four lines of parachute shroud twisted around his left leg were all that kept him from being thrown to the ground.
Swinging there upside down, Osipoff had enough presence of mind not to try to drop his reserve parachute. With the plane pulling him to one side and the reserve parachute pulling him to the other, he realized he would be torn in two. Conscious the whole time, he knew he was hanging by one leg, twirling and bouncing – and he was aware that his ribs were aching. He did not know then that two ribs and three vertebrae had been fractured.
Inside the plane, the DC-2 crew struggled to get Osipoff to safety, but they couldn’t reach him. The DC-2 was running low on fuel, but an emergency landing with Osipoff trailing behind would certainly have crushed it to death. And pilot Harold Johnson had no radio contact with the ground.
To get the attention below, Johnson reduced transport to 300 feet and began circling the North Island. A few people at the base noticed that the spot was passing every few minutes, but they assumed it was towing some sort of target.
Meanwhile, Bill Lowrey had landed his plane and was on his way to his office when he looked up. He and John McCants, who worked nearby, simultaneously saw the silhouette hanging from the plane. As the DC-2 spun again, Lowrey yelled at McCants, âThere’s a man hanging on that line. Do you think we can have it? McCants replied grimly, âWe can try. “
Lowrey yelled at his mechanics to get his plane ready for take off. It was a SOC-1, a two-seater, open-cockpit observation aircraft, less than 27 feet in length. Lowrey recalls, “I didn’t even know how much fuel he had.” Turning to McCants, he said, âLet’s go!
Lowrey and McCants had never flown together before, but the two seemed to take for granted that they would attempt the impossible. âThere was only one decision to make,â Lowrey said not long ago, âand that was to go get him. How, we didn’t know. We didn’t have the time to plan.
He also did not have time to contact their commander and ask for permission to fly. Lowrey simply said to the tower, âGive me a green light. I’m taking off. At the last moment, a Marine rushed towards the plane with a hunting knife – for prying Osipoff off – and threw it in McCants’ lap.
As the SOC-1 roared through the air, all activity around San Diego seemed to come to a halt. Civilians crowded onto the rooftops, children stopped playing at recess, the men of North Island looked up. With whispered prayers and pounding hearts, the watchers agonized with every move of the impossible mission.
Within minutes, Lowrey and McCants were under transport, flying 300 feet. They made five approaches, but the air turned out to be too choppy to attempt a rescue. As radio communication between the two planes was impossible, Lowrey motioned for Johnson to head for the Pacific, where the air would be milder, and they climbed to 3,000 feet. Johnson kept his plane on a straight path and reduced its speed to that of the smaller plane, to 100 miles per hour.
Lowrey flew back and away from Osipoff, but level with him. McCants, who was in the open seat in the back of Lowrey, saw that Osipoff was suspended by one foot and blood was flowing from his helmet. Lowrey approached the plane closer, and with such precision that his maneuvers interlocked with the oscillations of Osipoff’s inert body. His timing had to be exact so Osipoff didn’t get crushed in the SOC-1 propeller.
Finally, Lowrey slid his upper left wing under Osipoff’s lines, and McCants, standing in the aft cockpit, the aircraft still going at 100 mph at 3,000 feet above sea level, s’ is rushed on Osipoff. He grabbed him by the waist and Osipoff threw his arms around McCants shoulders in a deadly grip.
McCants got Osipoff on the plane, but since it was only a two-seater, the next problem was where to put it. As Lowrey moved SOC-1 forward to get a bit of slack in the drop lines, McCants managed to stretch Osipoff’s body over the top of the fuselage, with Osipoff’s head in his lap.
Since McCants was using both hands to hold Osipoff in a vise, he had no way of cutting the ropes that still tied Osipoff to the DC-2. Lowrey then moved his plane inch by inch closer to the transport and, with incredible precision, used his propeller to cut the guy lines. After hanging 33 minutes between life and death, Osipoff was finally free.
Lowrey had flown so close to the transport that he cut a 12 inch gash in his tail. But now the parachute, abruptly detached with the shroud lines, has drifted down and wrapped around Lowrey’s rudder. This meant Lowrey had to fly the SOC-1 without being able to control it properly and with most of Osipoff’s body still on the outside. Still, five minutes later, Lowrey managed to land on the North Island and the small plane came to rest. Osipoff eventually passed out, but not before hearing sailors applaud the landing.
Later, after lunch, Lowrey and McCants returned to their usual chores. Three weeks later, the two were airlifted to Washington, where each received a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Osipoff spent the next six months in hospital. The following January, fully recovered, he returned to parachute jumping. The morning he was due to take his first jump after the crash, he was cool and terse, as usual. His friends, however, were nervous. One after another, they went upstairs to reassure him. Everyone volunteered to jump first, so they could follow along.
Osipoff smiled and shook his head. “The devil with that!” He said as he strapped on his parachute. “I know very well that I will get there.”