My Father’s Crashing Story – In His Own Words

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In 1961 my father, Commander Jesse A. Bowers, was involved in a helicopter crash off San Diego. A married father of four and Navy physician, this accident changed the path of his life, and our family’s, entirely.

My father was told he would never walk again. That was not an acceptable outcome for him.

After his subsequent discharge from the Navy, my father went on to become a prominent Physiatrist, helping thousands of patients with head, neck and spinal cord injuries until his retirement in 1998. My father died in 2010, living many years longer than his physicians had predicted.

The above film is the actual accident – there happened to be a sailor with an 8mm film camera on deck who captured the entire thing.

In 1966, my father was asked to write about his journey in a medical journal, and my mom had a copy of his words – here they are.

Under a flaming sea … our helicopter sank.

Jesse A. Bowers

Nothing warned me that morning at the North Island Naval Air Station that I would be fighting desperately for my life in the midst of a holocaust a few hours hence. I was Assistant Senior Medical Officer at North Island, and I was starting the day of April 25, 1961, with its usual routine when a call came for a doctor to make an emergency helicopter flight to the USS Pine Island, a seaplane tender, 12 miles off the coast, to pick up a critically ill patient for evacuation to the U.S. Naval Hospital.

Without ceremony and still in my white coat I proceeded to operations (where the OPS officer needled me that a white coat was not for swimming). Within minutes we were off on the rather pleasant trip out. We reached the ship, and with all hands out on deck to watch the procedure. Landed and loaded the patient, who was apparently comatose in the basket type stretcher, aboard the helicopter. This necessitated my foregoing the usual strapping-in as space was needed for the stretcher.

Noticing the unusual instability of the takeoff, I became apprehensive almost immediately, and tried to calm myself by reading the patient’s health record. But halfway through the first paragraph, all hell broke loose. (Talk about dice in a dice cup-I know the feeling.)

The Crash

My apprehension now amounted to subpanic. We were about 20-40 feet off the ship when with a loud slam and a tremendous sickening lurch, we freefell to the deck. Many thoughts flashed through my mind– survivor’s interviews, accident investigations pouring from my memory and I frantically tried to tell myself I could survive if I used my head.

At this point (the main rotor had hit the ship’s superstructure) the helicopter hit the deck. The engine exploded, flames instantly sweeping the area, creating an inferno. The damaged helicopter rolled over the edge of the deck and into the water. Worse was yet to come, but at least the Pacific Ocean took off the immediate heat. Helicopters float like rocks, I discovered, and I was out of the fire only to find water rapidly raising over my head in the cabin.

Injured and Trapped

It was bearing in on my consciousness that the impact seemed to have broken my back, resulting in partial paraplegia. I knew I had to get out of the cabin and did some fast thinking. I can’t remember if I gulped a deep breath as the water covered my head, but I do remember orienting myself in the cabin, with particular reference to the door, and reminding myself not to inflate my life vest until after I had emerged from the helicopter. I was underwater, and the fire was gone. A crewman had been in the cabin, but he had escaped before we sank.

I had been thrown aft as the craft sank, and had to attempt to make my way to the door. Just as I got hold of the doorway, the helicopter lurched in its descent, wresting the hatch from my grasp and again forcing me aft. At this point of descent, the helicopter was rolling in such a way that the door was rapidly reaching the position where I would have to swim paraplegic-style, straight down in order to make an exit. Somehow, in about 15-20 feet of water, I pulled through.

The Fiery Sea

Once free of the aircraft I clawed frantically to inflate the Mae West to speed up my ascent. It was one more shock for me to break through the surface and find myself in the middle of burning aviation gas.Some of the fuel seemed to have adhered to my right ear, causing it to flare up even after I had “pushed” a “hole” in the burning fuel. I had to duck my head in the water to extinguish the flames on my ear three times – fortunately, it was more the fuel than my ear that was burning.

One more link in this nightmare chain faced me now. The ship was about 12 feet away, and the acute awareness of its turning screws and the traditional fear of being sucked into them struck me. However, the ship made an evasive turn to avoid this, and other than the turbulence of the wake, no dreaded suction reached out to me.

Aftermath

Now, the fire was almost out, the ship was out of the way, there were smoke and marker buoys and finally a moment to confirm my unconscious observation that there were only two of us floating around. The crewman who had escaped had first and second degree burns of the face. The patient hadn’t had a chance to survive, despite the flotation gear on the stretcher. No one has ever discovered what happened to the pilot. In 300 fathoms the craft was not recoverable.

I had experimented in toe wiggling and knew my cord lesion was partial, but I wondered what it would be after the necessary maneuvers to hoist me over the gunwale of the life boat. Somehow it was accomplished, however-I backed up to the boat to avoid being flexed over the gunwale and consequently possibly aggravating the spinal cord damage.

A Small Miracle

The hoist up the side of the ship from the boat was a little exciting. I was at about 30 degrees head down, strapped in a stretcher, and swinging over the deep, deep sea from which I had been so recently plucked. By this time I was teeth-chattering cold- but a few blankets, a warm sick bay, and a “little” brandy produced a small miracle quickly.

It was then that I learned that the ship had had troubles of its own. We’d exploded on top of aviation fuel tanks-fortunately empty, caused a signicant conflagration on deck, cracked a couple of crewmen’s bones, and the ship’s doctor was busy in the O.R. with a youngster whose leg had been nearly amputated.

The rest was routine, except to find out that the skipper of the ship and the deck officer turned out to be old friends of mine. Then followed the hospitalization, Cico-lectric bed, Laminectomy (imagine a Combo consisting of the chief of orthopedics and the chief of neurosurgery!), Jewett brace, then physical therapy for months, wheelchair, and last but not least, wonderful Jim Dillon, “plumber” and friend.

This was my introduction to Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation . . . the end of an experience I will never forget.

MARCH 1966