LOS ANGELES – Kenneth Schechter, a Korean War pilot who landed his plane while blinded from a wound, has died. He was 83.
Schechter died on Dec. 11 in Fairfield, California, his son, Rob Schechter, told the Los Angeles Times. He had prostate cancer.
Schechter was a 22-year-old U.S. Navy pilot when an enemy shell sent fragments into his eyes and blood running down his face during a March 22, 1952, bombing mission.
Schechter suddenly was semi-conscious, flying a smashed-up Skyraider at 200 mph (320 kph) over the Korean coast.
“Instinctively, I pulled back on the stick to gain altitude,” he wrote in an account for the 2001 book “Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul.” “When I came to, sometime later, I couldn’t see a thing. I felt for my upper lip. It was almost severed from the rest of my face.”
“I’m blind! For God’s sake, help me!” he cried into his radio. “I’m blind!”
A friend and fellow pilot, Lt. j.g. Howard Thayer, had already spotted the plane climbing and knew something was wrong.
Over the next 45 minutes, he helped talk down the plane. At one point, Thayer dumped his canteen over his head to wash away the blood. For a moment he saw the controls, but then everything went dark.
“Get me down, Howie,” he radioed. “Get me down.”
Thayer guided the plane toward the coast, intending for Schechter to bail out and be picked up in the water but Schechter refused. He had seen another pilot drown in the same waters after a bailout.
“Jump out in that icy water blind? You’d have to be insane,” Schechter said in a 1995 Times interview.
With the nearest air base 50 km away, and the bleeding Schechter slumping in the pilot’s seat, Thayer looked around for someplace to land — even a rice paddy. He finally remembered a rutted dirt army landing strip dubbed the “Jersey Bounce” that had been used by reconnaissance planes.
As they approached, Thayer told Schechter to lower his wheels.
“The hell with that!” Schechter replied. He thought a belly landing would be safer on the uneven ground.
Thayer, flying a few meters from his friend, kept up a running commentary as the plane came down.
“We’re heading straight,” he said. “Hundred yards to runway. You’re 50 feet off the ground. You’re level. You’re OK. You’re over the runway. Twenty feet. Kill it a little. You’re setting down. OK, OK, OK. Cut!”
Schechter was safe. It was his last flight before he left the navy months later. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1995.
The landing was retold in the 1954 movie, “Men of the Fighting Lady” with Dewey Martin as Schechter and Van Johnson as Thayer. In the Hollywood version, though, the pilots flew jets and the landing was on an aircraft carrier.
Schechter, who permanently lost the use of his right eye, became an insurance agent in the Los Angeles area.
Thayer, who remained in the navy, died in 1961 while guiding a pilot whose electrical system had failed. Both planes plunged into the Mediterranean. Thayer was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross in 2009.
In addition to his son, Schechter is survived by his wife, Sue; another son, Jonathan, a daughter, Anne Buckley, and seven grandchildren.