Chicago, IL Shuttle Helicopter Crash Kills 13, July 1960
COPTER CRASH KILLS MATEAN.
A Millbrae businessman was one of 13 persons killed in a flaming, grinding crash of a big helicopter in a shuttle flight between Midway and O'Hare International airports in Chicago last night.
Dead is RONALD GEHRKE, 43-year-old district manager for the F. W. D. truck building corporation, who lived at 837 Hawthorne Way, Millbrae.
He was aboard the shuttle flight en route home from a business meeting at the F. W. D. factory in Clintonville, Wis., according to his wife, JUNE, contacted today at home by The Times.
Wire service dispatches indicated the helicopter shuttle flight left Midway airport at 11:30 p.m. on its scheduled 11 minute, 18-mile flight to O'Hare. Some six miles and five minutes later it lay shattered and flaming amid the tombstones of a suburban cemetery.
Since jet aircraft do not land at Midway, the shuttle is necessary to make intercontinental flight connections at O'Hare.
The crash was the first for a regularly-scheduled U.S. passenger service, and the worst helicopter crash on record.
Witnesses said the craft seemed to suddenly stop in the air, zig-zagged a moment, and then plummeted to the ground shooting flames.
Wreckage and bodies were scattered over several blocks in the suburban Maywood and Forest Park section. The crash was in Forest Home cemetery north of Roosevelt road near the Des Plaines River.
Flames from the jumble of twisted steel were so hot fire-fighters were unable to get near it for more than an hour.
The Sikorsky S-58, a 12-passenger ship with two crewmen, was owned by Chicago Helicopter Airways, Inc., and had ferried hundreds of Republican convention visitors between the two airports and the downtown area throughout the week.
Civil Aeronautics board officials said today a structural defect may have caused the crash.
Federal and local authorities began an immediate investigation of the mysterious crash, which occurred in clear weather.
CAB officials said the exact cause of the tragedy was not yet known but that it may have been caused by a structural defect -- either in the mechanism controling movement of the giant rotar blades or in the tail section.
The tail section was found about 300 yards from the main body of the wreckage.
The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) also noted that it recently warned all S-58 helicopter operators of potential metal fatigue in the mechism controling the rotor blades. An FAA directive July 23 ordered daily inspection of the mechanism.
MRS. GERHKE said she was just packing at their Millbrae home, where they have lived four years, for a return to Burlingame, where they previously lived.
GEHRKE, had been with the F. W. D. corporation, which manufactures heavy-duty trucks, since 1937. He was born in Manawa, Wis., and was survived by his wife, a daughter, MRS. Jo ANN SHERRIN, 22, and two grandchildren, RONALD, 18-months, and DIANE, 3 1/2, all of whom lived at the Millbrae address.
Officials of the helicopter airline said the craft was a mile off course. Had it stayed on its usual route, it would have crashed in the midst of a residential area.
"It was a big red flash," said ED GAUGER, who from his back porch watched the helicopter sweep in close over the trees and crash four blocks away. State Trooper HENRY PILOTTO said the craft was afire before it crashed.
The fuselage containing at least five bodies ripped into a cluster of tombstones and erupted in white-hot fury. The tail section with three bodies, was more than two blocks away.
All the victims were men, who came from a half dozen states in the Midwest and West Coast. The helicopter shuttle service is used primarily by air travelers who must go from one airport to the other to change flights.
Some of the bodies were burned black; others were twisted in grotesque shapes.
GAUGER said he was certain the pilot veered from his regular course to avoid hitting the populated residential area.
"The plane was backfiring and definitely losing altitude," he said.
"My wife shouted, 'it's going down.' I think the pilot knew something was wrong and was trying to get away from the houses."
An official of the company, Chicago Helicopter Airways, Inc., said it appeared the tail section of the helicopter, similar to one used Wednesday by President Eisenhower on a visit to the Republican National convention, apparently fell off in flight.
A 600-foot slash in the tree tops approaching the crash scene indicated the pilot, ROBERT MEYER, 37, of Worth, Ill., fought desperately to gain altitude until the final moment. MEYER had flown for the line for 10 years.
The San Mateo Times California 1960-07-28