Helicopter that Fell to Earth
Cernan's Bell 47 Crash
prime crew patch design for Apollo 14
|The backup crew patch
design for Apollo 14
|The backup crew for Apollo
14: Engle, Cernan, & Evans
"We Choose to Go to the Moon..."
after the “successful failure” of the Apollo 13 mission to the moon,
Apollo 14 - the eighth manned mission in the Apollo program and the
third mission to land on the Moon – was preparing for launch on January
31st, 1971. The mission's commander, naval commander Alan
Shepard, was a veteran astronaut – but only with a total of 15 minutes,
and 22 seconds experience. With him, on their first missions into
space, were Stuart Roosa, as the Command Module Pilot, and Edgar
Mitchell as the Lunar Module Pilot.
With millions of
dollars of equipment and planning at stake, NASA always maintains a
backup crew, training in the same procedures and techniques, at the same
time as the primary crew. For the Apollo 14 mission, the backup crew
consisted of Gene Cernan as mission commander, Ronald Evans as the
Command Module Pilot, and Joe Engle as the Lunar Module Pilot.
As a part of his
Lunar Module training, Cernan flew several helicopter simulations, in order to
keep his skills sharp in the event of the primary crew's inability to
man the mission.
Shortly after 9
AM, on January 23rd, 1971, Cernan took off from Patrick AFB
for a short, one-hour, practice flight in a Bell 47G helicopter.
Flying south from the base along the Banana River, he continued offshore
over the Atlantic Ocean before turning west toward the Florida town of
Malabar. As he overflew the middle of the Indian River, he charged his
flight path to the northwest, while cruising at about 300 feet altitude.
Cernan continued a gradual descent until the helicopter's left skid
caught the water between a small island and the west shore of the Indian
Bill Quinliven, who lived on the banks
of the Indian River, just opposite the spot where the helicopter
crashed, said the helicopter was hovering about four or five feet above
the water when it suddenly plunged downward "with a terrific impact,
tumbled upside down and the rotor flew off."
"Within two or
three seconds a fire broke out with an exploding 'swoosh'," he said "It
burned very violently. I called to my wife to phone the sheriff and got
my binoculars. Within one or two minutes I saw a person in the water. He
appeared to be all right."
The main rotor,
tail boom and plastic canopy separated from the helicopter on impact,
and the right fuel tank ruptured, and then ignited. The helo, still
upright, then settled to the bottom of the river, in six feet of water.
Cernan released his straps, surfaced, and swam upwind from
the fuel fire. Cernan nearly drowned because he was not wearing a life
vest and received some second-degree burns on his face and singed hair.
Civilians to the Rescue!
Terry Dickerson, a 19-year-old, was
fishing in a boat with his mother, sped to Cernan's aid and took him to
a marina where sheriff's deputies rushed him to the clinic back at
Patrick Air Force Base
"When we got
there he was just floating in the water a little ways from the wreck,"
Dickerson said "He seemed shook up but not in shock or anything like
that It was pretty cold so we gave him a windbreaker "
Dr John T. Teegan,
who examined Cernan, said he was "totally alert, and generally in fine
condition following the accident. There is nothing to indicate any form
of medical treatment other than observation
Investigating the Cause...
A. Lovell, the mission commander from Apollo 13, was the chairman of the
investigative board, with other members of the investigating team being:
Conway H. Roberts, Aviation Safety Officer at the Manned Spacecraft
Center; Harold E. Ream, Senior Manned Spacecraft Center Pilot; Dick M.
Lucas, Chief of Manned Spacecraft Center's Aircraft Maintenance and
Quality Assurance Branch; and Astronaut Alan L. Bean.
On October 18, 1971, a NASA
press release stated that “misjudgment in estimating altitude” was the
primary cause of the crash. The board listed possible mitigating
factors which may have contributed to Cernan's failure to realize that
he was flying into the water. These included a lack of familiar objects
on the river surface to help him judge altitude, possible visual
focusing on a false water surface because of the water's millpond
smoothness and a change in sun reflection on the water cause by the
change in course just prior to the accident.
The board also
conjectured that Cernan's extensive experience with high-speed aircraft
may have contributed to his altitude misjudgment. The thought goes: the
lower a pilot flies in a jet aircraft, the faster the surface
appears to pass by. The effect is not as pronounced in a slower aircraft
such as a helicopter.
James McDivitt, an Apollo Manager at
the time, demanded that Cernan be removed from flight status and not be
given command of Apollo 17, as the master Apollo manning plan called for.
However, Cernan was defended by the chief astronaut, Deke Slayton, and given the
Apollo 17 command. Upset by the decision, McDivitt resigned as an Apollo
Manager shortly after the Apollo 16 mission in June of 1972.
Gene Cernan went to
the moon on the final mission of the lunar Apollo program. Cernan
became "the last man on the moon" since he was the last to re-enter the Apollo
Lunar Module during its third and final extra-vehicular activity (EVA).
Shortly before his final steps, he
spoke these immortal words: "As we leave
the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we
shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. As I take these last
steps from the surface for some time to come, I'd just like to record
that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow.
Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."
Regarding his 1971 helicopter
accident: in later
accounts, one of which was written by Cernan himself in an autobiography,
it is revealed that Cernan was
flying too low and showing off for nearby boaters. Cernan often describes the experience as "Mr.
Toad's Wild Ride."
In 1976, Cernan retired both from the Navy as a Captain, and from
NASA, going into private business. His career in aviation remained
relatively calm, until a 2001 trip to the
Czech Republic... when Cernan was flying, as a passenger,
on another helicopter (story coming soon).