Tragic Rickman Air Crash Caused by Fire, Faulty Part

From The Hanneman Archive

The September 1960 Chicago plane crash that killed all six members of the Richard Rickman familywas caused by a faulty engine valve and an intense oil fire, according to a federal investigation report obtained through the National Archives.

Richard E. Rickman, 34,was flying his wife and four children from Wisconsin Rapids to Detroit on Labor Day 1960 when his Beechcraft C35 Bonanza (tail number N-5816C) plunged into Lake Michigan with flames trailing from the engine. Rickman, his wife Helenand children Richard, Robert, Catherineand Patriciawere killed in the crash. The plane and its passengers sunk into the dark waters of Lake Michigan off Chicago’s Oak Street Beach. [See related:Entire Rickman Family Killed in 1960 Plane Crash]

Lifeguard Fred Rizzo carries the lifeless body of Catherine Rickman from a rescue boat to a Chicago Fire Department ambulance on Sept. 5, 1960. Screen grab: Chicago Tribune photo by James O’Leary.

It was a horrific, haunting tragedy.The Rickmans, native to central Wisconsin, were returning home to the Detroit area after a Labor Day vacation. Following the advice of the airport manager in Wisconsin Rapids, Rickman flew across Wisconsin and then along the Lake Michigan shoreline to Chicago. That’s where the trouble started. Rickman radioed the tower at Meigs Field in Chicago that he had an emergency and needed to land. [See an aerial view of Meigs Field] He never got the chance. The plane nose-dived into the water about 1 mile offshore from a crowded Oak Street Beach. All six Rickmans were killed.

The Civil Aeronautics Boardbegan investigating the crash just as the sections of damaged plane were recovered from the depths of Lake Michigan. The wings were sheared off on impact. Witnesses on the beach reported seeing flames coming from the engine as the  single-engine plane dove into the water. The probe was led by Clifford G. Sheker,the CAB’s air safety investigator.  The 205-horsepower Continental engine was recovered and sent off for analysis. Sheker testified before a Cook County coroner’s inquest jury twice — in September and October 1960. His preliminary finding in October was that engine trouble caused the crash.

That’s where the public attention stopped. The probe continued and led to a report of findings in April 1961, but there was no media coverage on the final cause of the crash. The Hanneman Archive began a search for Sheker’s report back in 2015. It was not on the Federal Aviation Administration’s online database of old CAB crash investigations.  The CAB was a predecessor to the National Transportation Safety Board.

We enlisted the help of the National Archives and Records Administrationin College Park, Maryland. After several months, an archivist named Amy R. found the answer in April 1961 meeting minutesfrom the Civil Aeronautics Board. She was kind enough to snap digital photos of the report narrative and send them via email. As far as we can tell, these details were not published by news outlets at the time.

The report said Rickman was about a mile offshore headed south at 7:26 p.m. when he broadcast a Mayday call: “I have an engine failure or something – I am coming in!” The flight was immediately cleared for emergency landing at Meigs Field, a single-runway airport on Northerly Island, a peninsula along Chicago’s lakefront. Sheker’s report described what happened:

“About this time ground witnesses and the occupants of another plane saw the aircraft afire in flight. They observed the plane make a left turn and go out of control twice before it crashed into Lake Michigan and exploded.”

Civil Aeronautics Board Investigation Report

The Continental Motors E-185 enginebecame disabled by an“intense oil fire”that originated in the area of the exhaust heater muff. The No. 3 exhaust valve showed “fatigue failure”that led to the fire. The engine crankcase was broken open and the Nos. 3 and 4 pistons and connecting rods were broken. The “intense, in-flight fire” entered the cabin in the area of the rudder pedals and “subjected the entire cabin to fire.”

Read the full story at the Hanneman Archive.

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