Live on the Air, Then Into the Water…
Off Manhattan Island, New York
October 22ndh, 1986
Roots in Rock...
Born October 1, 1947 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Jane Dornacker was one of the first female letter carriers in the United States in 1969. But she became a rock musician on the local San Francisco scene in the late 1970s. The tall, engaging lead singer, with the stage name of "Leila", she was the keyboardist and songwriter of the San Francisco "tack" rock group "Leila And The Snakes" with Pearl Gates and Pamela Wood providing supporting vocals. She parlayed her talents, and tried acting, appearing in playwright Sam Shepard's jazz opera "Inacoma" at San Francisco's Magic Theatre in 1977, and was featured in other works by the Overtone Theatre.
She is best known for her role as mysterious and humorless Nurse Murch in the film The Right Stuff.
Jane developed a successful career as a stand-up comedian on the San Francisco circuit and did her first work as a traffic reporter for KFRC, a Bay Area radio station. She worked with Dr. Don Rose, who was a popular disc jockey at the time. As she did traffic, she would tell her daughter Naomi to get up and get to school. She moved to New York City to become a much loved raspy-voiced "trafficologist" and "Jane-in-a-plane", working for WNBC 66 AM.
Up in the Sky...
On October 22, 1986, at 4:44 PM, Dornacker was broadcasting one of the station's N-Copter traffic reports. Tithe helicopter, an Enstrom F-28F, tail number N8617B, was being piloted by Bill Pate. The helo was flying at about 75 feet off of the Hudson River's surface. On her radio broadcast she was giving a report of an accident involving a tractor trailer and a car as well as a car fire. She also stated that the outbound Holland Tunnel was heavy with traffic and that the Lincoln Tunnel was much better with traffic and a car fire.
Dornacker was starting her report for incoming New Jersey traffic when the helicopter stalled in mid broadcast. Dornacker screamed, "Hit the water! Hit the water! Hit the water!" - then silence.
After the broadcast scrambled out, a stunned disc jockey, Joey Reynolds, told listeners, "Okay, we're going to play some music here or something... and find out what happened to the helicopter." as the station transitioned to the song "Hip To Be Square", by Huey Lewis & The News.
According to WNBC, an estimated 1 million listeners were tuned in at the time of impact.
Click here to listen to The final broadcast of the N-Copter and Jane Dornacker... (.wav file - 1.14 mB)
After the musical interlude, Joey Reynolds made mention of a prior mishap in a helicopter at Dornacker had been in six months earlier. On April 27, 1986, aboard a Engstrom F-28C, the helo departed the waterfront helipad. As it went over the water, the pilot noted a loss of engine power, and he tried to return to the helipad. But the rotor RPMs continued to degrade, and the helicopter settled into the water & sank. Both Dornacker, and the pilot swan to safety from the wreck.
In the Drink...
What most of the listeners did not know is that Dornacker’s helicopter nosedived, struck the top of a chain link fence at a river pier, crashed into the Hudson River very near to the Manhattan shore, near the U.S.S. Intrepid museum at 46th street, on the west side of Manhattan, and sank into 15 to 20 feet of water. Both occupants were trapped for between 10 to 15 minutes before help arrived.
A rescue crew equipped with scuba gear, pulled both victims from the water within 10 minutes of the crash, said Assistant Chief of Patrol Gerard Kerins
Firefighter Paul Hashagen, 35, swam 20 feet down to unhook Pate from his seatbelt and bring him to the surface. He then returned to find Dornacker floating inside the helicopter and brought her up. "Both were unconscious and not breathing when I found them," Hashagen, a blanket around his shoulders, said at Bellevue Hospital, where he was treated for exposure and released.
Jane Dornacker was declared dead at 8:20 p.m. on her way to Saint Vincent's Hospital. She was 39 years old. Her pilot and only other occupant, Bill Pate, was severely injured, requiring surgery for internal abdominal bleeding and moths of rehab, but ultimately survived the ordeal.
A Train of Abuses...
In the subsequent investigation, the NTSB found that the sprag clutch that was installed in the helicopter (on lease to WNBC Radio) was a military surplus part, which was not designed for use in a civilian aircraft, and that the part had not been adequately lubricated.
"It was determined that the clutch is unauthorized for the helicopter and, in addition, some internal components of the clutch do not conform to blueprint specifications," according to Frank Ghiorsi, chief of the regional office of the NTSB headquartered in New York, in a statement released a week after the crash.
The incorrect part directly led to a mid-air seizure of the main rotor blades. The staff of WNBC were so appalled at the revelation of this negligence, that at one point they threatened to resign en masse over the matter.
The manufacturer of the helicopter, Enstrom, was owned by Manchester, New Hampshire, businessman Dean Kamen (who later would invent the Segway IT), and was run by defense attorney F. Lee Bailey from 1971 to 1980.
Bailey told news reporters that he had flown the same helicopter in which Ms. Dornacker crashed, and said, "If there had been a design defect we would have known about it. It would have shown up in the first 100 hours and it didn't."
The real bombshell of the investigation was dropped when an unidentified mechanic, who was am employee of Spectrum Helicopters, the owner of the helicopter, said he grabbed the wrong clutch off a work bench while fixing the helicopter's transmission.
A month after the crash, Spectrum Helicopters Inc. of Ridgefield, New Jersey, was issued an emergency order by the FAA in which it charged that the company conducted faulty repairs on the three-seat helicopter 20 days before the fatal crash on October 22nd. The FAA further charged that Spectrum failed to train its pilots properly, failed to maintain proper operations and maintenance records, and operated a second helicopter, a Bell 206B, when it too was unsafe to fly.
A Legend's Legacy...
Dornacker's then 16-year-old daughter, Naomi, received $325,000 in a settlement with the owner and maker of the helicopter. What made Dornacker's death even more tragic is that Naomi's father had died shortly before her mother's death.
All the New York radio stations grounded their traffic helicopter fleets for a few days after Dornacker's accident.
A memorial concert in celebration of Jane Dornacker's life took place at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco on Saturday, November 22, 1986. Dr. Don Rose arranged several more tributes for Dornacker, in order to help Naomi pay for college.
There is a memorial to Dornacker in Wayne, New Jersey, where she and her family lived.