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Seventy-nine years ago today, U.S. Marine Lieutenant Walter S. Osipoff was dramatically rescued after his parachute became entangled with the tail wheel of his jump aircraft.  Flying another airplane, U.S. Navy Lieutenant William W. Lowrey and Chief Machinist’s Mate John R. McCants rendezvoused with the jump aircraft, miraculously freed the dangling parachutist, and returned him safely to the ground.

Thursday, 15 May 1941 dawned bright and sunny at Naval Air Station, San Diego, California.  On this particular day, jumpmaster Walter S. Osipoff was responsible for training a contingent of novice military parachutists. Accordingly, Osipoff and his young charges boarded a U.S. Navy R2D-1 transport with Captain Harold Johnson at the controls.  The mission involved parachuting men and materials over a drop zone in similitude of actual combat operations.  After everyone and everything else had exited the aircraft, the plan called for Osipoff to jump.

What happened next is one of those curious occurrences that can only be attributed to Murphy’s Law.  While heaving one of the last equipment bags overboard, Osipoff’s rip cord was accidentally pulled and his parachute deployed as he stood in the aircraft’s hatchway.  Despite his determined resistance, Osipoff was unceremoniously ripped out of the aircraft and into the 110-mph airstream.

Unfortunately, Murphy was not done with Osipoff.  Rather than clearing the aircraft and parachuting to safety, Osipoff’s parachute and shroud lines became entangled with the tail wheel.  The Marine was now in very serious trouble.  He became a human whirligig helplessly twirling at the end of a snarled conglomeration of shroud lines, static cable, and rip cord.  The aircraft crew were unable to reel him in and he could not break free of his connection to the tail wheel.  Naturally, the jump aircraft was not equipped with a radio and was low on fuel.

Pilot Johnson descended to a couple of hundred feet above the earth in the hope that someone on the ground would see Osipoff’s plight and somehow quickly find a way to rescue him.  While many on the ground silently beheld the stark spectacle in the air, it was William Lowrey and John McCants who answered the unspoken call to save their fellow airman.  On their own initiative, they quickly commandeered a nearby U.S. Navy SOC-1 Sea Gull observation aircraft and took to the air.  Just how they would rescue Osipoff from his predicament they did not know.

With Lowrey at the controls and McCants in the back seat, the SOC-1 caught up with the R2D-1 at around 300 feet above ground level.  Lowrey maneuvered his aircraft into a trail position with Osipoff in clear sight above and ahead of him.  What Lowrey and McCants saw was not encouraging.  Apparently, Osipoff’s chest strap had broken due to the high aerodynamic and inertial loads to which he had been subjected.  Further, his leg straps had slipped and were now around his ankles.  The rescuers also noticed that most of Osipoff’s shroud lines had snapped.

What happened next constitutes a miracle in the eyes of many who witnessed Osipoff’s rescue that day.  Using hand signals, Lowrey directed Johnson to ascend to 3,000 feet above ground level and head out over the ocean where the air would be smoother.   Lowrey carefully maneuvered his aerial steed perilously close to both Osipoff and the R2D-1.  The husky McCants, military knife in hand, stood up in the rear cockpit and felt for Osipoff as the two aircraft performed a life-and-death ballet while flying in a much-too-close formation.

As Lowrey brought the SOC-1 uncomfortably close to the dangling Osipoff, McCants reached up and grabbed the stricken parachutist.  The two men held on to each other for dear life.  While his head ended up in the rear cockpit, Osipoff’s body was sprawled across the top of the fuselage forward of the rear seat.  McCants could see that blood was dripping from Osipoff’s helmet and that the man was likely in a state of shock.  But presently, McCants had a more immediate problem to solve.  How could he simultaneously hold onto Osipoff and cut away the airman’s entanglements?  In the next moment, the solution to this dilemma was providentially provided.

As Lowrey struggled to maintain close proximity with the R2D-1, the bumpy air caused the venerable SOC-1 to suddenly jump upward a few feet.  In doing so, the type’s propeller fortuitously cut through Osipoff’s tangled shroud lines.  This freed Osipoff from his seemingly intractable situation.  For good measure, the observation aircraft’s propeller also cut about 12 inches off of the jump aircraft’s tail cone!  No problem.  The propeller and tail cone could be replaced.

If you thought that Murphy had already wrought havoc enough during this unlikely incident, you might consider what happened next.  Rather than simply falling away, the parachute and shroud lines which had been severed by the SOC-1’s propeller somehow managed to drape themselves over the rudder of the aircraft.  This presented Lowrey with one last piloting challenge.  That is, land his aircraft with (1) limited directional control due to a fouled rudder, (2) an injured man half in and half out of the aircraft, and (3) an aft center-of-gravity occasioned by having three men onboard.  Happily, Lowrey was equal to this moment as well.  Thirty-three minutes after the ordeal began, the SOC-1 and her crew safely recovered to the airfield at North Island.  Sorry Murphy; you tried.

Walter Osipoff spent 6-months in the hospital.  Among his many injuries, he sustained several broken ribs and 3 fractured vertebrae.  He recovered completely and went on to spend a long and illustrious career in the Marine Corps.  Osipoff was a tough guy.  While others were afraid for him to return to parachute jumping, Osipoff clearly was not.  He was made of sterner stuff than most.

William Lowrey and John McCants each received the Navy’s Distinguished Flying Cross for their heroic efforts on that spring day so long ago.  In tribute to them, we here repeat the concluding words of their citations: “This [action] is considered one of the most brilliant and daring rescues within the annals of our Naval history. The skill, courage, initiative, and resourcefulness displayed by Lieutenant Lowrey and Aviation Chief Machinist’s Mate McCants in effecting the rescue of Lieutenant Osipoff at the imminent risk of their lives were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.”

Posted in Aerospace, History


Teresa O'Connell April 9, 2021

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