The Parachutist and the Helicopter
Peter Nesbit, Sutton Coldfield, 2015
The Parachutist and the Helicopter, Aldridge Summer Fair 1973
In the summer of 1973 I was 19 years old. Along with a group of my friends, I went to a fair being held in a set of fields just off Erdington Road, on the boundary area between Aldridge and Streetly. The location has changed very little since 1973 and the nearby small pumping station building can still be seen there today. Being typical teenagers, none of us were interested in the name of the fair or what it was about, but I later learned that it was the Aldridge Summer Fair, the date being July 7th, a hot and sunny Saturday.
The fair itself was pretty much par for the course, lots of colourful stalls of the type still seen today, selling food and crafts etc. I remember that one unusual display in amongst the stalls was a police ‘meet and greet’ public relations exercise with a motorway ‘jam sandwich’ patrol car on show. It sticks in my memory because one of the officers was doing a less than brilliant job of endearing himself - I found myself being publicly and very loudly interrogated by him after asking a very inoffensive question about police procedures when patrolling motorways!
The real attraction of the fair was the prospect of a parachute display team due to jump out of an aircraft high up over the event and land in a nearby field in front of the gathered crowds. In retrospect it was an oddly risky thing to do, considering the huge electricity pylons in the vicinity, but they must have thought it a safe exercise at the time. The crowd watched as the parachutists came down, I don’t recall how many of them there were in the team, but they all came down safely bar one. This particular team member came down directly between the two lines of high-power live cables carried on either side of the pylons, and his parachute caught on the single topmost cable, leaving him suspended helplessly in an incredibly perilous position, surrounded by power lines. This caused quite a stir amongst the onlookers when we all realised this certainly wasn’t part of the show and that he was in real trouble. Apparently the cable from which he hung was a non-powered ‘static’ or earth wire and we estimated he was about 80 feet off the ground, the exact distance could no doubt be calculated by subtracting the length of the parachute cords from the height of the pylon.
Fire Service vehicles soon arrived and the crews brought out a rescue ‘safety net’ tarpaulin of the sort used to save people jumping from burning buildings, positioning it directly under the parachutist. It soon became apparent that there weren’t enough firemen to realistically man the net, so a call was made to the watching crowd for fit and reasonably strong male volunteers. My friends and I didn’t hesitate and crossed the barrier and headed across the field to the tarpaulin, along with others totalling about two dozen men in all. Once there, we held on to the tarpaulin at about waist height in a circle and were guided by a number of the firemen to keep us directly under the parachutist, should he fall. As we stood ready, I heard conversations between a nearby fireman and his associates. There was talk of switching off the electricity running through the power lines, but apparently there would still be enough residual charge left in them to kill anybody touching them for many hours yet to come, so trying to get a powered extending ladder up to him was out of the question. By this time, the parachutist had been up there for some time and he was shouting down to us, begging us to hurry up and do something, because the harness was getting very painful and his legs were going dead.
After even more time slowly passed it was beginning to appear that nothing much could be done for him, and we were all discussing whether we’d manage to catch him safely from so high up because it was looking like that might be his only choice – to unclip himself from his parachute and drop. However, eventually we could hear a helicopter approaching in the distance and then we saw it appear above us, a small military two-man helicopter with a bubble canopy similar to the machines seen in TV’s ‘M.A.S.H.’, a very dated looking machine even by 1970s standards. The aircraft stopped and hovered over the top pylon cable and our man hanging beneath it.
We learned from the firemen that the plan was for the helicopter to drop a line down to the parachutist with a separate harness on it, and that he would free himself from the parachute harness once he had gotten himself into the rescue harness. Once switched, he would then be winched down to the ground by the helicopter crew, but we should stay in position underneath to catch him if anything went wrong. It was at that point that we were told he was going to drop his back-up ‘reserve’ parachute pack, either to lose weight or get it of the way, or both. Also it would be a good test to see if we had the net in the correct position to catch him if he fell. The pack came hurtling down and hit the tarpaulin dead-centre, the weight and impact of it sending us all off balance towards the middle of the sheet when it landed. From what we could see, it looked like the plan was going well; the parachutist successfully made the switch into the rescue harness and the helicopter began lowering him down towards us. We nervously kept the tarpaulin as tight as we could as he came down, knowing full well that he’d weigh a lot more than the kit he’d just dropped, should he fall, but I think we were all breathing a collective sigh of relief as we convinced ourselves that he was finally safe.
Then it all went horribly wrong.
Without warning, the parachutist was pulled back up some distance and then he suddenly fell, along with with the loose rescue cable, we estimated from about 40 feet. He landed face down flat on the ground with a loud thud that shook the ground beneath our feet, missing us and the tarpaulin by about 10 feet. Within a second or two the helicopter came down too, crashing just a few yards from us on the other side of a hedge. There was what sounded and felt like an explosion and smoking debris came flying over the hedge towards us, including a large piece of shattered Perspex canopy which narrowly missed the head of the man standing next to me. The parachutist appeared to be completely lifeless, lying prone with no movement or sound at all. He was immediately surrounded by emergency services people and hidden from view. Some of us then ran to the hedge and looked over it, the helicopter was upright, facing us and was ablaze, and to our horror we could see two human sized shapes sitting motionless in the cockpit which was a ball of intense orange fire. Almost immediately someone shouted “They’re over there!” and to our relief we could see the two blackened crewmen stumbling through the crop stalks, trying to get away from the machine. Someone said that they had jumped out just before it hit the ground. It seems that the objects on fire in the cockpit were in fact the seat assemblies, perhaps with parachute packs that made them look distorted and crumpled, like bodies.
So what happened? The theory at the time was that high winds caused the helicopter to drift out of position and descend on the northwest side of the pylon cables, dragging the rescue line over one of the highest wires at an angle beneath the machine, then horizontally behind it as it lost height. This had the effect of pulling the unfortunate parachutist back up and swinging him outwards at an angle, out of line with the safety net below. As the helicopter descended further, it came down closer to the rescue line pulled taut behind it, and the line then got caught up in the tail rotor and snapped, dropping the parachutist. The helicopter’s tail rotor was put out of action and the disabled machine came down. I didn’t see precisely what happened from where I was, but I do remember seeing the parachutist being pulled back up moments before he fell. Oddly enough I do not remember hearing a roaring engine getting louder and louder as the helicopter came down beside us, just the noise of the explosion, so whether the pilot cut the engine or it failed as it came down I do not know. Now in 2015, chances are that the results of the air accident investigation that must have followed are probably available for public viewing, possibly at the National Archives.
Back at the scene, all of us who had been asked to volunteer were now being told to go away pretty bluntly by those in authority, which was understandable since the fire services had a blazing helicopter to put out and the medics possibly had a death to deal with. But the fire service guys who had been alongside us on the safety net stopped us as we left and made a point of thanking us for what we had done, acknowledging the risks that we’d taken, albeit unwittingly. At this point I saw someone, possibly the same man who had almost been hit by the flying piece of Perspex canopy, cheerfully walking off with it as a souvenir, only to be told by an officer to put it down because ‘it wasn’t his to keep’. We walked away as ordered, but before we left the fair, we found out that the parachutist, unbelievably, was still alive and had been taken off to hospital, possibly Good Hope in Sutton Coldfield.
Communications in the 1970’s were prehistoric compared to today’s internet technology and nothing was heard or seen about the parachutist until many months later when there was a feature article about him in a ‘Hello’ type of current affairs magazine, possibly ‘Weekend’. His name was RAF Sgt Kenneth Cornwell and from what I recall in the article, he had shattered nearly every bone in his body and sustained serious internal injuries, but was recovering. It seems that what had saved him was being in the harness so long and the resultant numbness making his legs go limp, this caused him to land completely flat and the impact was spread throughout his body rather than through his legs and upwards, which would have been almost certainly fatal.
I doubt that these days the services would ever consider involving the public as they did that day. The tarpaulin was probably far too small and inadequate to have saved the parachutist anyway if he’d fallen from his original height, and God forbid, if he’d hit anyone directly underneath him, the consequences do not bear thinking about. Worse still, if the helicopter had come down on us it could have been carnage, but it was only years later that I ever considered that. The 70’s were routinely risky times compared to today’s ‘health and safety’ protected way of life, and events like this were often taken as being ‘one of those things’.
Footnote: After some research on the internet I discovered that the helicopter was a Sioux AH1, serial no XT238, belonging to the 15/16th Queens Royal Lancers (source: UK Serials Resource Centre). Also, there was an inquiry into the accident by The Safety and Training Committee of the British Parachute Association in Sheldon, Birmingham, on the 5th December 1973, the results of which can be found online.
Copyright Peter Nesbit 2015