After the U2
fiasco had slipped from public memory, Powers settled back into a
normal life's routine. Until 1970, Powers was a civilian under
contract to the CIA. In 1971, Powers was hired as an aerial traffic
reporter by Los Angeles radio station KGIL — a job he kept five
years before joining KNBC in November of 1976, as a pilot/reporter
for the station's camera-carrying TeleCopter, a modified Bell 206
"Jet-Ranger" helicopter, registered as N4TV.
On the morning
of August 1, 1977, Powers and his television camera operator. George
Spears were shooting aerial coverage of a follow-up of the Santa
Barbara fire disaster. Powers also reported on two fires in the Los
Padres National Forest, according to KNBC assignment editor Mike
McCornick. McCornick said at about 12:25 pm. Powers told the
assignment desk he had completed his filming in the Santa Barbara
area, was inbound back to Burbank Airport, and believed he had
enough fuel to return to the airport. However, shortly, Powers
radioed Van Nuys Airport requesting a landing because of a low fuel
supply. The tower granted the helicopter permission to land, but it
would never arrive.
Many have wondered
or speculated on how an experienced pilot such as Powers could have
allowed the aircraft to run out of fuel. Powers had reported a fuel
gauge error to the mechanics. When the plane's fuel gauge indicator
displayed "Empty," he actually had enough fuel for 30 more minutes
of flight time. Apparently the aviation mechanic fixed the fuel
gauge in the KNBC helicopter, but did not tell Powers of the
Out of Fuel and at
800 Feet...With his state-of-the art helicopter now low on fuel, and
with the airport too far to reach, Powers began looking for a place
to set down. However, in the heart of Los Angeles County, nearly
every scrap of land features some improvement. Single-family homes
and apartment building filled his view. The pickings for an
emergency landing spot were slim.
One of the few
exceptions, however, was Sepulveda Dam Recreational Area located
near one of the busiest freeway intersections in the world, where
U. S. 101 meets Interstate 405; the park is actually the flood
control basin for the Sepulveda Dam, an integral part of Lake Balboa
in the San Fernando Valley. Popular with locals as a spot to
exercise, play, or simply be outdoors, the park features numerous
facilities, including several baseball diamonds.
suggested that Powers attempted to auto rotate the helicopter onto
recreational fields at this location. At 12:35 PM, Powers had the
park insight, and flew the helicopter downwards in an effort to
crash-land the helicopter without injuring anyone. However, at the
last moment, he saw several teenagers playing baseball on the
diamonds below. Powers' last transmission was "TV four just lost -”.
Powers intentionally banked to avoid children on the fields and
ultimately crashed the helicopter into an adjacent agricultural
field, resulting in the aircraft rolling and the occupants' deaths.
John Donley, 16,
an eyewitness, said he heard a popping noise, looked up, and "saw
the back prop fall off”. He added, "I saw a man fall out of the
helicopter when It was about 50 feet off the ground" and he thought
it might have been Powers.
"It was coughing
like it was backfiring," said Willie Cooper, 15. "The engine all of
a sudden died and it went shooosh, and I thought 'Oh my God, what's
going to happen,' and then it hit the ground."
"I heard the
engine conking out," said Mark Barela, 15, one of several teen-age
boys who saw the crash. "The helicopter was sort of rocking a
little, then started straightening out, made one more dip and then
hit the ground. "I saw one body thrown out of the copter," Barela
said. The body Mark saw was that of Powers.
helicopter bounced into the ground and flipped upside-down, smashing
the half-million dollar chopper to pieces, and gouging a
20-foot-long crater into the ploughed fields. Powers, 47, and
Spears, 43, were both killed instantly. Powers was survived by his
wife Sue, and two children, Dee and Francis Gary Jr. Spears, who had
been working at KNBC for only 14 months to that point, left behind a
wife, Annette, and three teenage children.
The wreckage of
the KNBC helicopter, now a ball of twisted metal. Firefighters
responding to the scene immediately removed a smoking battery from
the wreckage and prevented ignition of any leaking fuel. "His flight
direction was directly toward the ball field where the boys were. He
fell down, about 50 yards from where the boys were playing... and I
think he purposely nosed it down in an unoccupied area," said Sgt.
Dennis Ruegsegger of the Los Angeles Police Department.
tape recorder was found in the wreckage, but a KNBC spokesman said
there was nothing on it to give a clue to the trouble and that it
apparently was not turned on at the time for the crash. Four video
cassettes were recovered from the crash site, and three were used on
the air that same evening.
The wreckage of
the helicopter was taken to the Wayne Airframe Aviation Company in
Van Nuys. The investigation of the cause of the crash found no
mechanical defects in the helicopter, stating, "There was nothing
wrong except that there was very little fuel in the system.” In
fact, the fuel lines had been run dry, and only 5 ounces of fuel
been found in the entire system. The National Transportation Safety
Board attributed the probable cause of the crash fuel exhaustion.
When Francis Gary
Powers became an airborne traffic reporter for radio station
KGIL in the San Fernando Valley, he was known for his unique sign
off “Gary Powers, KGIL sky watch”. He
was then hired by Los Angeles television station KNBC to pilot their
new "TeleCopter”, a helicopter equipped with externally mounted 360
Sadly, on August
1, 1977, Francis
Gary Powers died, at the age of 47. On his return
from covering brush fires in Santa Barbara County, his helicopter
ran out of fuel and crashed just a few miles from Burbank Airport
where he was based. KNBC cameraman George Spears was also killed in
Power's body was
taken to the Douglas Mortuary in El Segundo. Dick Spangler,
president of the Radio and Television News Association of Southern
California, lobbied to have Powers buried at Arlington National
Cemetery. On August 3, 1977 the request was approved by President
Jimmy Carter, as well as the acting Secretary of the Army Clifford
Alexander. Presidential Press Secretary Jody Powell telephoned
Powers' widow to relay President Carter's approval of the request,
the basis being Powers' service as a CIA spy pilot and as a holder
of the Intelligence Star, a CIA medal equivalent to the Silver Star.