FRIENDS AND CONNECTIONS: THE AMAZING JANE DORNACKER
|Born||October 1, 1947
Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.
|Died||October 22, 1986 (aged 39)
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Cause of death||Helicopter crash|
|Occupation||Musician, actress, comedian, traffic reporter|
Jane Dornacker (October 1, 1947 – October 22, 1986) was an American rock musician, actress, comedian, and traffic reporter.
In 1986, while working for WNBC 660 AM Radio in New York City (which became WFAN in 1988), Dornacker was aboard during two unrelated crashes of the helicopters leased to WNBC. She survived the first crash, but was killed in the second crash into the Hudson River, which occurred as she was delivering a live traffic report. Her death came shortly after that of her husband, Bob Knickerbocker, orphaning their 16-year-old daughter. The NTSB investigation determined the cause of the fatal crash to have been use of improper parts and poor maintenance on the part of Spectrum Helicopters of Ridgefield Park, New Jersey.
Music and acting
Dornacker was the lead singer (Leila), keyboardist, and songwriter of the 1970s/1980s San Francisco "tack" rock group Leila and the Snakes. Pearl Gates and Pamela Wood provided supporting vocals. Their repertoire included "Rock and Roll Weirdos," "Pyramid Power" and a spoof version of Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" Gates later left (and took the band with her) to form Pearl Harbor and the Explosions. Guitarist Miles Corbin went on to form the surf instrumental band the Aqua Velvets.
Dornacker provided lead vocals on "Christopher Columbus" (1978), a song by R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders. With Ron Nagle, she co-wrote the humorous hit song "Don't Touch Me There" for The Tubes. The song was sung by Re Styles and appeared on The Tubes' second studio album, Young and Rich (1976), and was released as a 7" single in the US, the UK, and the Netherlands. The B-side was "Proud to Be an American". Jane had also toured with The Tubes as a backing singer and dancer.
Dornacker was also an actress. She appeared in playwright Sam Shepard's jazz opera Inacoma at San Francisco's Magic Theatre (1977) and was featured in other works by the Overtone Theatre. She appeared in The Stand-Up, Anita Sperm and as Nurse Murch in the film The Right Stuff.
Stand up comedy and radio
Dornacker developed a successful career as a stand-up comic on the San Francisco circuit and did her first work as a traffic reporter in the early-mid-1980s for KFRC, a popular Top 40 radio station. She worked with Don Rose, who was that station's morning disc jockey at the time. She was noted for her exceptionally fast speech, so fast it required concentration to understand her. As she did traffic, she would tell her daughter Naomi to get up and get to school. She moved to New York City to become a much-loved, raspy-voiced "trafficologist" and "Jane-in-a-plane." After Dornacker died, Rose arranged several tributes to establish a college fund for Naomi.
Dornacker survived one helicopter crash only to die in a second helicopter crash in the same year. On April 18, 1986, Dornacker was reporting from a WNBC helicopter over the Hackensack River in New Jersey when the aircraft crashed into the river. She and the pilot survived and were able to swim to shore.
On October 22, 1986, Dornacker was giving one of the station's N-Copter traffic reports during the Joey Reynolds Show on WNBC Radio in New York City. At 4:44 p.m., the Enstrom F-28 helicopter she was aboard plunged into the Hudson River from an altitude of roughly 75 feet (23 m). Dornacker was starting her report for incoming New Jersey traffic when the helicopter suffered mechanical failure in mid-broadcast and crashed. Her last words were, "Hit the water, hit the water, hit the water!"
The F-28 helicopter nose-dived, struck the top of a chain link fence at a river pier, crashed into the Hudson River very near to the Manhattan shore and sank in 15 to 20 feet (5 to 6 m) of water. Both occupants were trapped for nearly 10–15 minutes before help arrived. Dornacker died on her way to Saint Vincent's Catholic Medical Center. She was 39 years old. Pilot Bill Pate, the only other occupant, was severely injured but survived.
In the subsequent investigation, the NTSB found that the sprag clutch that was installed in the helicopter, which was on lease to WNBC Radio by Spectrum Helicopters of Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, was a military surplus part which was not designed for use in a civilian aircraft, and that the part had not been adequately lubricated. It directly led to a mid-air seizure of the main rotor blades.
Dornacker's then 16-year-old daughter, Naomi, was now-orphaned, having lost her father, Bob Knickerbocker, three months before her mother's death. Naomi received $325,000 in a settlement with owner Spectrum Helicopters of Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, and the maker of the helicopter.
Shortly after the incident, several on-air interviews with WNBC Radio staff described the incident and their feelings in detail, including how other news organizations "pumped news" into the WNBC Radio newsroom as they were all in shock. Joey Reynolds broke down on-air when talking about Dornacker's now-orphaned daughter. WNBC played other interviews with friends and recordings of Dornacker talking about the first helicopter crash earlier that same year. Her music was also played during these tribute shows including "Don't Touch Me There" which she wrote for The Tubes.
All the New York stations grounded their traffic helicopters for a few days after the accident. A memorial concert in celebration of Jane took place at The Warfield Theatre in San Francisco on Saturday, November 22, 1986. There is a memorial to her in Wayne, New Jersey, where Dornacker and her family lived.
- NTSB's report on helicopter crash
- "Trust fund established for Dornacker daughter". Desert Sun. Oct 24, 1986.
- "The Joey Reynolds Show". Oct 23, 1986.
Roots in Rock...
Born October 1, 1947 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Jane Dornacker was one of the first female letter carriers in the United States in 1969. But she became a rock musician on the local San Francisco scene in the late 1970s. The tall, engaging lead singer, with the stage name of "Leila", she was the keyboardist and songwriter of the San Francisco "tack" rock group "Leila And The Snakes" with Pearl Gates and Pamela Wood providing supporting vocals. She parlayed her talents, and tried acting, appearing in playwright Sam Shepard's jazz opera "Inacoma" at San Francisco's Magic Theatre in 1977, and was featured in other works by the Overtone Theatre.
She is best known for her role as mysterious and humorless Nurse Murch in the film The Right Stuff.
Jane developed a successful career as a stand-up comedian on the San Francisco circuit and did her first work as a traffic reporter for KFRC, a Bay Area radio station. She worked with Dr. Don Rose, who was a popular disc jockey at the time. As she did traffic, she would tell her daughter Naomi to get up and get to school. She moved to New York City to become a much loved raspy-voiced "trafficologist" and "Jane-in-a-plane", working for WNBC 66 AM.
Up in the Sky...
On October 22, 1986, at 4:44 PM, Dornacker was broadcasting one of the station's N-Copter traffic reports. Tithe helicopter, an Enstrom F-28F, tail number N8617B, was being piloted by Bill Pate. The helo was flying at about 75 feet off of the Hudson River's surface. On her radio broadcast she was giving a report of an accident involving a tractor trailer and a car as well as a car fire. She also stated that the outbound Holland Tunnel was heavy with traffic and that the Lincoln Tunnel was much better with traffic and a car fire.
Dornacker was starting her report for incoming New Jersey traffic when the helicopter stalled in mid broadcast. Dornacker screamed, "Hit the water! Hit the water! Hit the water!" - then silence.
After the broadcast scrambled out, a stunned disc jockey, Joey Reynolds, told listeners, "Okay, we're going to play some music here or something... and find out what happened to the helicopter." as the station transitioned to the song "Hip To Be Square", by Huey Lewis & The News.
According to WNBC, an estimated 1 million listeners were tuned in at the time of impact.
After the musical interlude, Joey Reynolds made mention of a prior mishap in a helicopter at Dornacker had been in six months earlier. On April 27, 1986, aboard a Engstrom F-28C, the helo departed the waterfront helipad. As it went over the water, the pilot noted a loss of engine power, and he tried to return to the helipad. But the rotor RPMs continued to degrade, and the helicopter settled into the water & sank. Both Dornacker, and the pilot swan to safety from the wreck.
In the Drink...
What most of the listeners did not know is that Dornacker’s helicopter nosedived, struck the top of a chain link fence at a river pier, crashed into the Hudson River very near to the Manhattan shore, near the U.S.S. Intrepid museum at 46th street, on the west side of Manhattan, and sank into 15 to 20 feet of water. Both occupants were trapped for between 10 to 15 minutes before help arrived.
A rescue crew equipped with scuba gear, pulled both victims from the water within 10 minutes of the crash, said Assistant Chief of Patrol Gerard Kerins
Firefighter Paul Hashagen, 35, swam 20 feet down to unhook Pate from his seatbelt and bring him to the surface. He then returned to find Dornacker floating inside the helicopter and brought her up. "Both were unconscious and not breathing when I found them," Hashagen, a blanket around his shoulders, said at Bellevue Hospital, where he was treated for exposure and released.
Jane Dornacker was declared dead at 8:20 p.m. on her way to Saint Vincent's Hospital. She was 39 years old. Her pilot and only other occupant, Bill Pate, was severely injured, requiring surgery for internal abdominal bleeding and moths of rehab, but ultimately survived the ordeal.
A Train of Abuses...
In the subsequent investigation, the NTSB found that the sprag clutch that was installed in the helicopter (on lease to WNBC Radio) was a military surplus part, which was not designed for use in a civilian aircraft, and that the part had not been adequately lubricated.
"It was determined that the clutch is unauthorized for the helicopter and, in addition, some internal components of the clutch do not conform to blueprint specifications," according to Frank Ghiorsi, chief of the regional office of the NTSB headquartered in New York, in a statement released a week after the crash.
The incorrect part directly led to a mid-air seizure of the main rotor blades. The staff of WNBC were so appalled at the revelation of this negligence, that at one point they threatened to resign en masse over the matter.
The manufacturer of the helicopter, Enstrom, was owned by Manchester, New Hampshire, businessman Dean Kamen (who later would invent the Segway IT), and was run by defense attorney F. Lee Bailey from 1971 to 1980.
Bailey told news reporters that he had flown the same helicopter in which Ms. Dornacker crashed, and said, "If there had been a design defect we would have known about it. It would have shown up in the first 100 hours and it didn't."
The real bombshell of the investigation was dropped when an unidentified mechanic, who was am employee of Spectrum Helicopters, the owner of the helicopter, said he grabbed the wrong clutch off a work bench while fixing the helicopter's transmission.
A month after the crash, Spectrum Helicopters Inc. of Ridgefield, New Jersey, was issued an emergency order by the FAA in which it charged that the company conducted faulty repairs on the three-seat helicopter 20 days before the fatal crash on October 22nd. The FAA further charged that Spectrum failed to train its pilots properly, failed to maintain proper operations and maintenance records, and operated a second helicopter, a Bell 206B, when it too was unsafe to fly.
A Legend's Legacy...
Dornacker's then 16-year-old daughter, Naomi, received $325,000 in a settlement with the owner and maker of the helicopter. What made Dornacker's death even more tragic is that Naomi's father had died shortly before her mother's death.
All the New York radio stations grounded their traffic helicopter fleets for a few days after Dornacker's accident.
A memorial concert in celebration of Jane Dornacker's life took place at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco on Saturday, November 22, 1986. Dr. Don Rose arranged several more tributes for Dornacker, in order to help Naomi pay for college.
There is a memorial to Dornacker in Wayne, New Jersey, where she and her family lived.