|Image courtesy of The History Blog|
On this day in 2012, (yeah I know, that's this year) three teenage hikers found a propeller blade sticking out of the snow.
Okay, let's start over. The actual date of the discovery was July 27th, but "if you're gonna have a hit, ya gotta make it fit" so I changed it to fit our usual starting phrase.
And what's the deal with snow in July? Well, if you're in the Swiss Alps, the month is irrelevant because the snow is omnipresent. Since this story isn't about the hikers, and finding a propeller isn't usually a historical event, I massaged the whole introduction to make it fit. Also, since these kids didn't have the decency to contact this blog first with the story (instead, they called a news station), I have decided to omit their names and ignore them for the remainder of this story. I'm vindictive that way.
The real story is about a plane that crashed in November, 1946, and the remarkable way the people on board survived and were rescued. The whole affair was front page news at the time.
The pilot was Captain Ralph Tate Jr., the plane was a US military transport (C-53 Skytrooper Dakota), and the passengers included a General, a Colonel, their families, three other crewmen, and most importantly, his mother. An even dozen souls in all. For obvious reasons Ralph was trying to avoid bad weather.
Somewhere near Innsbruck, Switzerland, he and his copilot became directionally disoriented. Pretty soon they were as confused as Scott Walker at a union meeting. They went off course and began to think they were in the French Alps. The situation rapidly deteriorated when they were caught in a downdraft.
To avoid an abrupt meeting with an Alp, Ralph was forced to make a "pancake" landing on a glacier. He pulled it off in a move that would have made Sully Sullenberger proud. And even though the worst injury was a broken leg, the problems were far from over.
It's a tad cold there in November, about -5 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and they had to improvise for warmth and food. They gathered up the box lunches and anything that could be used for blankets. They radioed for help with the power left in the batteries, but the signal was bouncing around the mountains like a yodeler's echo. All the searchers were coming up empty. Two days went by. Just when it looked like they had about one more day to live, Ralph heard a plane above and fired a flare. Luckily, his father saw it.
That's right, his own father, Brigadier General Ralph Tate Sr, was piloting a B-29 overhead while searching for them and was on his way back to base in Munich after thinking he had failed. Tate Sr. fired his own flare in answer. The two were able to exchange only a few words on air before the radio batteries in the downed plane finally gave out.
But the spot was marked and the rescue was on. The ensuing heroics went down in Swiss history. Everyone was saved, and the legendary Swiss Air Rescue Guard Rega was essentially born on that day.
To toast the heroes, hoist a Feldschlösschen. But don't let the Swiss beer make you disoriented, you might end up calling your father for a ride home.
As you might imagine, there is a hellava lot more to the story. But I had to make it fit the spot so if you want to read a great account of the whole story you should read it at The History Blog where I first learned about it. It's a terrific place to find great history.
Editors note: On April 5th, 2013 we received a comment from a reader, Dave Head, from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Dave says that the facts are incorrect in our story in regards to who actually found the Dakota and when. Dave writes about it in the comment section below. Be sure to read it as a follow-up to our story. We have no reason to dispute Dave's version, in fact it seems likely that his source is genuine. We welcome his participation and encourage everyone to help us keep the facts straight.
Thanks Dave! Cheeky History strives to get it right, but we are only as good as our sources since we don't do any original research. We're glad to have input on any story we write about. And thanks again to The History Blog, they do great work on so much history.