By all accounts, July 28, 1971 was a beautiful summer day … 76 degrees with 12-mile visibility. So, it was not surprising that a teenage pilot from La Grange would go to Midway Airport with two schoolmates and rent a small Piper Cherokee from the Circle Air Flying Club to which he belonged. See photo. After all, the pilot had held his license for over a year and, with one of the other boys, he had previously flown to and from the Bahamas without incident.
The pilot did not file a flight plan, nor was one required. However, toward dusk the plane with the three young men, all students at Lyons Township High School, were spotted over the school’s south campus heading south. Then, as one witness described it, the plane’s engine “coughed and sputtered”, after which the single-engine aircraft briefly touched down on one of the school’s baseball fields.
The plane reportedly bounced back 50 feet into the air, passed over a row of houses and ended up in the backyard at 106 W. 51st Street. There, the front portion of the fuselage slammed into the home’s sliding glass patio doors, showering the recreation room with bricks and glass. See photo.
The homeowner, who was in the room watching television, sustained lacerations and contusions. However, his injuries were not life-threatening and he was treated and released.
While there was no explosion or fire, all three occupants of the plane sustained head injuries and internal injuries. Fortunately, several neighbors rushed over with garden hoses and washed down the spilled gasoline. Another neighbor, a registered nurse, climbed onto the crumpled fuselage and treated the occupants by using rags and t-shirts to stop their bleeding.
The injured boys were pulled from the plane by Western Springs firemen, who reportedly had to remove one of the plane’s wings to make a hole large enough to reach them. See photo.
Fire officials rushed the injured to nearby Community (now La Grange) Memorial Hospital, where they were placed in intensive care. Sadly, the pilot of the plane succumbed to his injuries six days later.
The FAA’s initial investigation indicated that the crash was due to engine failure resulting from carburetor icing. But, investigators also felt that the pilot might have been a contributing factor. Several people reported seeing the plane near the Oak Brook Shopping Center just ten minutes before the crash in Western Springs. These witnesses stated that the plane had engaged in “prolonged low-level buzzing of office buildings” and had been seen “zooming between high buildings”. The plane had also performed a “touch and go” maneuver on an open field just north of the village.
While an obvious tragedy, the crash did demonstrate how willingly our residents stepped forward to help both their neighbors and total strangers. Such actions may well have prevented this from being an even greater tragedy.
Each week, the Western Springs Historical Society presents a “Blast from the Past”. To view prior stories, visit us at www.westernspringshistory.org.