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The Final Flight of "Captain Max" Schumacher

Near Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, California

August 30, 1966

From Fixed Wing, to Rotary...

A pioneer in radio broadcasting from a helicopter and traffic reporting, Max H. Schumacher was born on May 10th, 1925, in Orange County, California. Joining the Marine Corps during World War II, he served as a turret gunner, and advanced to piloting a fighter-bomber in the Pacific theatre, and into the Korean conflict. Switching to helicopters, he was last stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, California, as a search and rescue pilot when, in 1956, he earned the Navy’s Air Medal for his heroism during the rescue of three Navy aviators some 40 miles out to sea at night.

He retired from active duty in 1957, but stayed in the reserves, working as a freelance commercial helicopter pilot. One day, he was flying a Hollywood starlet to Marineland. There, in the parking lot, he met Donn Reed, a radio news reporter for CBS radio. The two hit it off immediately, becoming good friends with mutual business interests.

The pair decided to report the news from the sky, convincing Los Angeles radio station KABC-AM 790 to invest $50,000 into a Bell 47H helicopter to establish “Operation Airwatch” on December 30th, 1957. Working as an aerial platform to report on traffic conditions every fifteen minutes from over the freeways of Southern California, KABC would then rebroadcast the reports – creating a major draw to the highly competitive Los Angeles radio market, with its ever-growing automobile traffic congestion.

Donn Reed & Max Schumacher

Growing Pains...

Schumacher piloted the helicopter as Reed reported. Of course, the duo would also become the first to several spectacular events, and eyewitnesses to numerous crazy happenings, but had its limitations. Reed recalled, “The vibration of the aircraft was so intense that the tubes in the broadcasting equipment constantly wiggled loose. We knew we could broadcast about an hour before losing our equipment, so I strapped a walkie-talkie between my legs, with a range of about 4 miles, and we had to get back into that 4-mile range to make our reports. We really pushed the choppers beyond their limits.”

But, on July 7th, 1958, the Airwatch helicopter suffered an engine failure shortly after takeoff from Glendale’s Grand Central Airport. Seeing a school, Franklin Elementary School, and knowing it was summer and likely out-of-session, he darted for the school ground without radioing.

As Schmumacher recalled, "Suddenly I spotted several youngsters, told Donn to hang on, and swerved into the tree. It was the only thing I could do."

The crash demolished the helo, Schumacher suffered a broken vertebra, and Reed was thrown through the plexiglass canopy. Also as a result of his injuries, Schumacher developed a limp, and Reed – who received a deep gash on one leg - could no longer sit for long periods of time and began covering the city’s news from the ground.

So, Reed bought out his partners and sold the business in 1961 to singing cowboy / actor Gene Autry’s company Golden West Broadcasters, and “Operation Airwatch” moved to Autry’s KMPC-AM 710.

Becoming "Captain Max"...
Traffic Reporter, Captain Max Schumacher, in Kmpc Airwatch Helicopter 2811 at peak of evening rush
Traffic Reporter "Captain Max" Schumacher, in KMPC "Airwatch" Helicopter 2811 at peak of evening rush
Photo by Ralph Crane - Buy This at Allposters.com

By 1966, Schumacher had logged more than 8,000 hours reporting on freeway traffic conditions and spot news assignments in the Los Angeles area, earning the moniker “Captain Max” and received numerous awards for his flying exploits.

One award was from the city of Long Beach, where he formerly lived, for his aid in saving the life of a woman hospital patient suffering from loss of blood. Another was for his actions in December of 1963 for rescuing residents trapped when the Baldwin Hills Dam burst. Others were for helping police track down fleeing criminals, still others for aid in spotting and controlling fires. Schumacher was even shot at in 1965 during the Watts riots, and coordinated the rescue of a fellow KMPC reporter, Andy Park, from rioters.

Captain Max’s exploits with KMPC became so noteworthy, the radio station published a comic book for children, entitled “The True Adventures of Captain Max”, and he also appeared – as himself – in the 1964 movie, “The Lively Set”. But a quiet hero, he frequently signed off his broadcast with the saying, "Watch your driving and leave the accidents to us."

On the morning of Monday, January 31st, 1966, Captain Max was flying the Airwatch helicopter, registered as N1157W to ‘SigAlert Airways,' when the tail rotor assembly fell off his chopper and he crash-landed on a railroad embankment near the intersection of North Pacific & North Parish in Burbank, near Monterey Avenue Elementary School. Amazingly, he was uninjured, and the helicopter returned to service. According to investigators, the probable cause of the mishap was a fatigue fracture in the tail rotor.

It appeared as though "Captain Max" was unstoppable.

Baseball Season…

On the afternoon of Tuesday, August 30th, 1966, the 40-year-old Schumacher was again flying the Airwatch helicopter, N1157W, toward a reported shooting. Also aboard the Bell 47G with Schumacher were Buckley and Lorraine Newcomb, a married couple who owned Bucky’s Coffee Shop in Anaheim, and were both close friends of Schumacher simply “out to have some fun” according to their family.

Alex N. Ilnicki, LAPD pilotLarry D. Amberg, LAPD observer

At the same time, airmen from Los Angeles Police Department’s Helicopter Unit, 46-year-old pilot Alex N. Ilnicki and 27-year-old traffic observer Lawrence “Larry” D. Amberg, were also flying a Bell 47G, registered as N1162W, on a routine traffic patrol.

Ilnicki, had just over 400 hours of flight experience, had been with the LAPD for twenty years, and had joined the aerial unit about a year prior, wearing badge #3490. A fighter pilot in the Army Air Forces during World War II, he was once shot down over New Guinea in the Southwest Pacific theater, and earned several wartime decorations, including the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters. A family man, he was scheduled to begin a two-week vacation the very next day.

Amberg has only been serving four and a half years to that point, and wore badge #10668. Known for having a sunny deposition, he completed motor school in November of 1963, and was on the frontlines of the 1965 Watts riots.

Hovering…

"It didn't look like they saw each other” and then they collided," Hall said. He said the "ear-spilling" collision and explosion of one of the helicopters sent a shower of flaming debris earthward.

At 4:50 pm, the two helicopters were operating in the vicinity of Dodger Stadium. Nearby, a Los Angeles resident, Joe Hall, witnessed Schumacher's helicopter hovering at an altitude of about 500 feet when the police helicopter approached it. "It didn't look like they saw each other,” when the two helicopters made an "ear-spilling" collision nearly perpendicular to each other, exploding in a large fireball.

The collision was witnessed by hundreds of horrified motorists and other observers on the ground. The helicopters’ occupants were flung, along with flaming wreckage, over a wide area along an embankment on the eastern edge of the stadium parking lot and rolled down the hill to a wire fence, leaving a fiery path in its wake. The plunging wreckage barely missed several houses only a few feet from where the flaming mass struck the ground, and parts sliced through a roof at the nearby Cathedral Catholic High School.

All five – the three in Schumacher’s helo, and the two police aviators, were killed in the collision.

Parts of rotor blades spun into the Dodger Stadium parking area, and another chunk of the burning wreckage crashed through the ceiling of the empty Cathedral High School gymnasium off Stadium Way.

The bodies of Schumacher and Mr. Newcomb were recovered almost immediately after rescue crews reached the blazing wreckage, but it was not until the flames were almost extinguished that a third victim — later identified as Mrs. Newcomb — was found in the shattered helicopter.

Fire raging in the wreckage of the police helicopter delayed recovery of one of the victims from that craft for more than an hour.

Finding Cause…

The morning after the midair collision, Civil Aeronautics Board and Federal Aviation Agency investigators launched an official probe in the cause of the mishap, and began collecting and examining the wreckage, as well as gathered statements from motorists and other eyewitnesses. Led by Robert E. Gilmore, the investigation ultimately concluded both pilots failed to "see and avoid" each other in the sky due to sunglare.

Homicide detectives of the Los Angeles Police Department investigated reports that a rifle-armed sniper fired two or more shots from the south end of the Pasadena Freeway tunnel near Stadium Way just before the air tragedy. But no bullets or bullet fragments were found in the bodies of the badly crushed victims, according to coroner's autopsy report issued the next day by Dr. Kenneth Chapman, the acting medical examiner. A detective later speculated the "shot heard may have been sounds from the crash itself.”

Honors, Remembrances, and Lawsuits…

"They were two of the finest helicopter pilots in the land. They were in command of their birds at all times. It just doesn't add up," said Leon Owens, senior Los Angeles Police Department helicopter pilot, one of the first to appear before investigators.

In Sacramento, Lt. Governor Glenn M. Anderson urged the State Highway Commission to adopt a memorial resolution honoring Captain Max for "extraordinary service to the motoring public."

Max Schumacher was buried at Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park in its Court of Freedom section – Lawn Crypt 2399. Officer Larry Amberg was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Cypress. Officer Alex Ilnicki was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Los Angeles.

In September of 1966, Schumacher’s second wife, Ruth Ann, was sued over the $60,000 insurance policy by his first wife, Joyce Schumacher Cleary, citing that the beneficiary of that policy was, according to the original 1962 divorce decree, to be Joyce and Max’s then 18-year-old son, Max Junior. The senior Schumacher changed his policy in May of 1964 to provide for his new bride.

Two months later, in December of 1966, both Schumacher's widow, and his ex-wife, on behalf of his son Max Junior, filed damage claims for a total of $1,539,800 against the city of Los Angeles. The damage claims were necessary before a lawsuit could be filed in Superior Court. The claims were promptly rejected, and - in June of 1967 - a lawsuit was filed for $767,500. In March of 1967, the City of Los Angeles sued the estate of Max Schumacher, the radio station KMPC, Golden West Broadcasters, and Airwatch Inc. for $91,000 on the grounds of negligence. In July of 1968, the two women agreed to split the insurance money evenly.

As a direct result of the midair collision, the Professional Helicopter Pilot's Association of Southern California was founded. Starting in 1967, the Helicopter Association International established the ‘Max Schumacher Memorial Award’ which was given "for outstanding achievements in the international helicopter community for the advancement of the use of helicopters in urban area operations.” The award was issued until 1988 when it was combined to be part of the HAI’s Agusta Community Service Award. Schumacher is also recognized on the Los Angeles Press Club’s Fallen Journalists Memorial Wall at Cal State Northridge, and is enshrined on the Journalists Memorial at the Newseum in Washington, DC.

To fill the shoes emptied by Captain Max’s demise, KMPC hired pilot Jim Hicklin. But, on April 2nd, 1973, Hicklin was killed in his stateroom aboard the cruise ship ‘Princess Italia’ just moments before the ship was to sail on an 11-day cruise to Mexico. He was shot – as his family watched - by a crazed listener, Edward E. Taylor, after broadcasting where he was going on vacation. Taylor had written several letters complaining that Hicklin was “buzzing” his home. He received a prison sentence of life without parole.

In 1971, Ilnicki and Amberg were both honored, along with the dozens of other LAPD officers whom died in the line of duty, on the Los Angeles Police Memorial – a black granite fountain located in front of Parker Center – the agency’s headquarters. They are also enshrined on the California Peace Officers’ Memorial, a book located outside the Governor’s office in the state’s Capitol building in Sacramento, as well as National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial at Judiciary Square in Washington, DC.

 

 

 

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