Offering Aviation History & Adventure First-Hand!


The Francis Gary Powers Helo Crash

August 1st, 1977


Francis Gary Powers, posing in front of the KNBC Channel 4 "TeleCopter"

Fewer Days Ahead Than Behind...

After the U-2 fiasco had slipped from public memory, pilot Francis Gary Powers settled back into a normal life's routine.  Powers, a civilian under contract to the CIA at the time, was divorced and remarried in 1963. He went to work after the inquiry as a U-2 test pilot for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation the plane's maker. He was laid off in 1970 and believed that publication of "Operation Overflight," his account of the U-2 downing and its aftermath, was the reason.

In 1971, Powers was hired as an aerial traffic reporter by Los Angeles radio station KGIL — a job he kept five years before joining KNBC in November of 1976, as a pilot/reporter for the station's camera-carrying Telecopter, a modified Bell 206 "Jet-Ranger" helicopter, registered as N4TV.

On the morning of August 1st, 1977, Powers and his television cameraman. George Spears, were shooting aerial coverage of a follow-up of the Santa Barbara fire disaster.

Powers also reported on two fires in the Los Padres National Forest, according to KNBC assignment editor Mike McCormick

McCormick said at about 12:25 pm. Powers told the assignment desk he had completed his filming in the Santa Barbara area, was inbound back to Burbank Airport, and believed he had enough fuel to return to the airport.

However, shortly later, Powers radioed Van Nuys Airport requesting a landing because of a low fuel supply.  The tower granted the helo permission to land, but it would never arrive.

Out of Fuel, and at 800 Feet...

With his state-of-the art helicopter now low on fuel, and with the airport too far to reach, Powers began looking for a place to set down.  But in the heart of Los Angeles county, nearly every scrap of land features some improvement.  Single-family homes and apartment building filled his view.  The pickings for an emergency landing spot were slim. 

One of the few exceptions, however, was Sepulveda Dam Recreational Area   Located near one of the busiest freeway intersections in the world, where U.S. 101 meets Interstate 405, the park is actually the flood control basin for the Sepulveda Dam, an integral part of Lake Balboa in the San Fernando Valley.  Popular with locals as a spot to exercise, play, or simply be outdoors, the park features numerous facilities, including several baseball diamonds.

At 12:35 PM, Powers had the park insight, and flew the helicopter downwards in an effort to crash-land the helicopter without injuring anyone.  However, at the last moment, he saw several teenagers playing baseball on the diamonds below.  Powers' last transmission was "TV four just lost -."

John Donley, 16, an eyewitness, said be heard a popping noise, looked up and "saw the back prop fall off." He added, "I saw a man fall out of the helicopter when It was about 50 feet off the ground" and he thought it might have been Powers.

"I heard the engine conking out," said Mark Barela, 15, one of several teenage boys who saw the crash. "The helicopter was sort of rocking a little, then started straightening out, made one more dip and then hit the ground."

"It was coughing like it was backfiring," said Willie Cooper, 15. "The engine all of a sudden died and it went shooosh, and I thought 'Oh my God, what's going to happen,' and then it hit the ground."

"I saw one body thrown out of the copter," Barela said. The body Mark saw was that of Powers.

The jet-powered helicopter bounced into the ground and flipped upside-down, smashing the half-million dollar chopper to pieces, and gouging a 20-foot-long crater into the ploughed fields. Powers, 47, and Spears, 43, were both killed instantly.

"His flight direction was directly toward the ball field where the boys were.  He fell down, about 50 yards from where the boys were playing... and I think he purposely nosed it down in an unoccupied area," said Sgt. Dennis Ruegsegger of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Powers flying a Cessna over southern California, making traffic and news reportsThe wreckage of the KNBC helicopter, now a ball of twisted metal
Powers' body being carried away from the crash site in a stretcherThe KNBC helicopter wreckage, as seen from another angle

Making the Best of the Bad...

A video-audio tape recorder was found in the wreckage, but a KNBC spokesman said there was nothing on it to give a clue to the trouble and that it apparently was not turned on at the time for the crash. Four video cassettes were recovered from the crash site, and three were used on the air that same evening.

Firemen responding to the scene immediately removed a smoking battery from the wreckage and prevented ignition of any leaking fuel.

Power's body was taken to the Douglas Mortuary in El Segundo.  Dick Spangler, president of the Radio and Television News Association of Southern California, lobbied to have Powers buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  On August 3rd, the request was approved by President Jimmy Carter, as well as the acting Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander. 

George Spears

Presidential Press Secretary Jody Powell telephoned Powers' widow to relay President Carter's approval of the request, the basis being Powers' service as a CIA spy pilot and as a holder of the Intelligence Star, a CIA medal equivalent to the Silver Star.  Powers was survived by his wife Sue, and two children, Dee and Francis Gary Jr.


Spears, who had been working at KNBC for only 14 months to that point, left behind a wife, Annette, and three teenage children.

The wreckage of the helicopter was taken to the Wayne Airframe Aviation Company in Van Nuys.  The investigation of the cause of the crash found no mechanical defects in the helicopter, stating that "There was nothing wrong except that there was very little fuel in the system."  In fact, the fuel lines had been run dry, and only 5 ounces of fuel been found in the entire system.

The National Transportation Safety Board attributed the probable cause of the crash to poor fuel management on the part of the pilot, leading to fuel exhaustion.

Better Late Than Never...

First dedicated in 1996, both Powers and Spears' names are included on the Freedom Forum's Journalists Memorial, which honors reporters, photographers and broadcasters who have died reporting the news. It is presently located at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., near the U.S. Capitol building.

In 1998, declassified  documents from the Cold War revealed that Powers' U-2 mission was a joint operation by the CIA and the Air Force.  On May 1st, 2000, the fortieth anniversary of the U-2 incident, the U.S. government posthumously awarded Powers' family the medals denied to Powers in life.

His family accepted a Distinguished Flying Cross, Department of Defense Prisoner of War Medal and National Defense Service Medal during a ceremony at Beale Air Force Base in California. Speaking at the ceremony, Air Force Brigadier General. Kevin Chilton said, "The mind still boggles (over) what we asked this man to do: Fly in a plane …over downtown Moscow, alone, unarmed and unafraid, then to suffer in prison during what indeed was a war, the Cold War." 

The 30-minute ceremony ended with a fly-by of a lone U-2 plane, in tribute to Powers and his service.

In 2015, a major motion picture, "Bridge of Spies" was released. Directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg, and written by Matt Charman, Ethan and Joel Coen - the film tells the story of lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who is entrusted with negotiating the release of Francis Gary Powers, portrayed by actor Austin Stowell.

In 2017, an online effort was started to create and place a memorial marker at the site of Powers and Spears' helo crash. You can learn more about it on Facebook here.

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Copyright © 2002 Check Six
This page last updated Tuesday, November 22, 2016

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