It was May 15, 1941. Nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be on the horizon for any of the three men who would enter the blue skies of San Diego, California on that day.
Yet before nightfall they would meet mid-air in history’s most epic rescue mission at 3,000 feet above the ground.
All was calm.
Lieutenant Bill Lowery, a 34-year-old Navy test pilot from New Orleans; Walter Osipoff, also a lieutenant pilot from Akron, Ohio; and John McCants, a 41-year-old Aviation Chief Machinist from Jordan, Montana started their day on North Island at the United States Naval Airbase.
They were ready for training.
Osipoff, an experienced parachutist with more than 20 jumps under his belt already, took off in a DC-2 for a routine parachute jump at 9:45 a.m. He was supervising 12 men in a training exercise he had led many times before.
When they reached their destination, Kearney Mesa, the men prepared themselves for the jump, which also included an exercise that practiced parachuting equipment to the ground—three cylinders that contained rifles and ammunition.
There was trouble ahead.
Osipoff stood inches from the airplane’s door, and nine of the soldiers had already made their jump. He then hurled the two of the three cylinders out of the plane without incident, but the last one became accidentally tangled with the cord on his backpack parachute, which had looped itself over the cylinder.
His chute was immediately torn open, and as he tried to quickly grasp the escaping parachute, he was yanked from the airplane out into the open sky. His body bounced off of the plane first, thrusting him so hard against the aircraft that the impact tore a 2 1/2-foot laceration in the DC-2’s aluminum fuselage.
The odds of surviving were not good.
Osipoff’s open parachute caught on the plane’s tail wheel, dragging him as he flailed through the sky. One leg strap was wrapped around his ankle while 24 of the other 28 straps began snapping. The harness of his parachute also gave way, leaving only four lines twisted around his left leg. If they snapped, Osipoff would be sent into a free fall to his most certain death.
Osipoff dangled upside down but still attempted to release his emergency parachute. He remained conscious and aware enough to realize that the plane and his parachute were battling over which direction to pull his body. If that continued, he himself would be torn in half. Although not aware of it at the time, he was dangling in a death grip 12 feet below and 15 feet behind the plane, with three fractured vertebrae and two broken ribs.
The crew that remained inside the DC-2 could not reach him. And, to make matters worse, they were running low on fuel, with pilot Harold Johnson having no radio contact with the ground. Any attempt at an emergency landing was out of the question—it would no doubt kill Osipoff.
They tried to make contact with the ground.
Johnson, in an attempt to alert the ground crew, brought the plane down to 300 feet and circled North Island. The base crew noticed, but made the assumption that the plane was towing some sort of military target or something. They had no idea, at first, that it was actually their fellow soldier, Osipoff.
Others finally realized there was a man hanging from the plane.
Bill Lowrey, meanwhile, had just landed his own plane and was walking to his office looked up and saw Osipoff. John McCants was working nearby and also correctly identified that it was a human hanging from the plane.
Lowrey bellowed out to McCants, “There’s a man hanging on that line! Do you suppose we can get him?!” McCants answered, “We can try.”
With that, Lowrey told his mechanics to prepare his SOC-1 plane, and both he and McCants took to the air to help. “I didn’t even know how much fuel it had,” said Lowrey.
This was the first time Lowrey and McCants had flown together. “There was only one decision to be made, and that was to go get him,” Lowrey said. “How, we didn’t know. We had no time to plan.”
Normally, a pilot would need permission from their commanding officer to take off, but there was no time for that. Lowrey yelled to the tower: “Give me a green light. I’m taking off!” Just before the wheels turned to start down the runway, a Marine rushed out and handed McCants a hunting knife to cut Osipoff loose.
A crowd gathered to watch.
It seemed that by now that everyone had become aware of what was happening. Life stopped, as crowds gathered to witness how the scene would unfold. It was a set of circumstances straight out of the pinnacle of a Hollywood movie, but there they were. Living it. Watching it. Wondering. Praying.
The two rescuers made five attempts to get close enough to cut Osipoff ‘s cord, with the hope that the open part of his parachute would carry him safely to the ground, and Johnson’s gashed airplane would have enough fuel to land safely. But the air was too bumpy for a rescue. Still, with no radio communication between them, the two planes were facing the impossible.
That’s when Lowrey made a crucial decision—one of many that were about to result in the life or death of all involved.
Lowrey hand-signaled to Johnson, indicating for him to fly out over the Pacific Ocean. The air would be smoother there. When they reached 3,000 feet, Johnson reduced his speed and held his course. When the two matched speeds at 100 miles per hour, Lowrey closed in on Osipoff, who was hanging by one foot and blood dripping from his helmet.
He flew with amazing precision, matching the swinging body movements of Osipoff’s body. One mistake would send Osipoff directly into the SOC-1’s propeller.
The final rescue was attempted.
As McCants sat in the open seat behind him, Lowrey maneuvered his upper left wing under Osipoff’s parachute lines. McCants then stood up in the rear cockpit—and lunged for Osipoff. He caught hold of him at the waist, and Osipoff gripped his arms around McCants’ shoulders. As McCants pulled Osipoff into the airplane, Lowrey eased forward to create slack in the chute lines. McCants stretched Osipoff’s body over the top of the fuselage, placing Osipoff’s head in his lap.
McCants was unable to cut Osipoff’s parachute cords because he was using both arms to hold him. Lowrey, incredibly, inched forward and was able to use his propeller to cut the cords. Osipoff had been hanging for 33 minutes, not knowing if he would live or die, but he was finally freed from the DC-2.
To add one last complication before landing, however, the loose parachute lines became wrapped around Lowrey’s rudder. Lowrey had to fly and land his plane without full control of the craft, and with Osipoff’s body still partially hanging out of the plane.
The plane touched down.
Lowrey touched down at North Island five minutes later. Osipoff went unconsciousness just after hearing the cheers and applauding of civilians and sailors who stood, watching in awe, the entire time.
Lowrey and McCants returned to their usual duties that same afternoon. Osipoff spent the next six months in the hospital, but fortunately he recovered completely. Lowrey and McCants received a Distinguished Flying Cross, and Osipoff returned to parachute jumping.
On the very first return flight and jump after his accident, Lowry’s friends went up with him to reassure him. Each volunteered to go first, before Lowry, so he might be comforted in following.
But Osipoff would have none of it. He grinned, shook his head and said, “The hell with that!” I know damn well I’m going to make it.” And make it he did.
Source: Two Pilots Save a Man Dangling from Another Plane in History’s Most Spectacular Mid-Air Rescue from Reader’s Digest.