Entire Richard Rickman Family Killed in 1960 Plane Crash in Chicago

As he prepared his six-seat Beechcraft C35 Bonanza airplane for takeoff, Richard E. Rickman asked airport manager John Stedman if he should take the most direct route, across expansive Lake Michigan to Detroit. Stedman cautioned against it, telling the pilot to fly east across Wisconsin to the lake, then hug the shore and make his way over to Michigan. This approach would presumably be safer, and provide great views for Rickman, his wife and four children.

It was just after the dinner hour on Labor Day 1960. The Rickman family packed themselves into the aircraft at Alexander Field in Wisconsin Rapids, ready to make the flight home to Detroit. The family had been to Drummond, Wis., to visit Helen Rickman’s parents, then flew to the Rapids to visit other relatives.

Richard, the son of a longtime shoe-store proprietor, grew up in Wisconsin Rapids. He was a descendant of pioneer resident Matthias Hanneman, who came to Wisconsin in 1866 from Pomerania. A factory representative for the Ogden Manufacturing Co., Rickman married the former Helen Anderson in December 1949 and they later moved to Michigan. Their first child, Richard Edward, was born in Lansing in May 1953. Robert John was born in Lansing in March 1955. Catherine Helen was born in Detroit in June 1956; and Patricia Ann joined the family in Detroit in September 1957.

The Richard E. Rickman family, shown in a 1960 newspaper photograph. Left to right are Richard, 7; Patricia, 3; Richard Sr., 35; Robert, 5; Helen, 34; and Catherine, 4.
The Richard E. Rickman family, shown in a 1960 newspaper photograph. Left to right are Richard, 7; Patricia, 3; Richard Sr., 35; Robert, 5; Helen, 34; and Catherine, 4.

The final day of the Rickmans’ visit was spent at the airfield. Rickman gave plane rides to his sister, Elvira Pluke, her husband Nolan and their five children. Rickman primarily used the single-engine aircraft for business trips. The family had recently flown to California in the plane, and then used it for the Labor Day weekend visit.

The wheels of the Beechcraft left the ground of Alexander Field at 6:30 p.m. The Rickman family flew along the western shore of Lake Michigan. They were treated to an incredible view of the Chicago skyline as the aircraft flew less an a mile offshore. The first sign of trouble came near 7:30 p.m., when Rickman issued distress calls that were heard by ships and aircraft as far north as Milwaukee. Rickman radioed Meigs Field in downtown Chicago and asked permission to make an emergency landing because the plane’s engine was cutting out.

Officials at Meigs Field gave Rickman permission for an emergency landing. He veered the aircraft out over the lake and circled to attempt a landing. Witnesses at nearby Oak Street Beach saw sparks trailing from the airplane. The 185-horsepower Continental engine caught fire and became enveloped in smoke. Suddenly, the 25-foot-long airplane turned straight down and plunged headlong into the lake. Hundreds of horrified beach-goers saw a blinding explosion as the plane hit the water.

The Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune carried the horrifying news on September 6, 1960.
The Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune carried the horrifying news on September 6, 1960.

William J. Cempleman saw the fiery crash from aboard the yacht Playtime. “The whole lake looked afire. Flames soared twenty-five to thirty feet,” Cempleman said. “When we got to the scene, a big circle of water was flaming. All we could see was an airplane wheel floating.” As the Playtime circled the crash site, Cempleman saw the charred body of little Catherine Rickman, 4, floating about 15 feet from the flames. Newspapers across America later published a dramatic Associated Press photograph of a police marine officer carrying the lifeless body of Catherine to shore. Resuscitation efforts failed.

Lifeguard Bill Zimmerman with a door from the doomed Beechcraft C35 Bonanza. (Chicago Tribune)
Lifeguard Bill Zimmerman with a door from the doomed Beechcraft C35 Bonanza piloted by Richard E. Rickman. (Chicago Tribune)

Police and Coast Guard vessels searched the waters off Oak Street Beach into the night. Divers used underwater lights to aid in the search, but found no trace of the aircraft or the other members of the Rickman family. Divers resume the search on September 6, but did not locate the wreckage or the other victims until September 7. Diver Jeff Daxe, a commercial pilot, was the first to reach the bodies. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that one body was found 50 feet from the fuselage, while the other four were inside the wreckage. After the victims were recovered and taken to Burnham Harbor, it was discovered that Richard Rickman’s watch stopped at 7:38 p.m. 

The impact sheared off both wings, but only one was found. The engine and propeller were found some distance from the rest of the wreckage in about 30 feet of water. Two weeks after the crash, the Civil Aeronautics Board issued a preliminary opinion that engine failure had caused the crash. In late October the CAB confirmed that opinion, but said the engine would be sent back to the manufacturer for testing. It’s unknown if that ever happened.

The six members of the Rickman family were memorialized at a funeral service on Saturday, September 10, 1960 at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Wisconsin Rapids. They were buried at Forest Hill Cemetery.

The six members of the Richard E. Rickman family are buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Wisconsin Rapids.
The six members of the Richard E. Rickman family are buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Wisconsin Rapids. (Photo courtesy of Ben Chitek)

Richard Edwin Rickman was born on April 27, 1926, the youngest child of Edwin and Renata (Rathke) Rickman. Edwin John Rickman was the son of Christian Wilhelm Ludwig Theodor and Amelia Bertha Emilie Auguste (Hannemann) Rickman. Amelia’s father was August Friedrich Hanneman, the son of family patriarch Matthias Hannemann. Richard Rickman graduated from Lincoln High School in 1943 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in July 1943. He served more than three years in the Navy during World War II and was discharged as an ensign in September 1960. He graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in business administration.

©2015 The Hanneman Archive

14 thoughts on “Entire Richard Rickman Family Killed in 1960 Plane Crash in Chicago”

  1. Interesting. I hadn’t heard about this before now. But knew about Ed Rickman & wife Renata and know where they lived in Rapids. I’ll bet there was a lot of talk in our church when this happened. I was pretty young to bother about things like that. But several Rickman’s attended and still attend our church in Kellner. St. John’s Lutheran. Sue

    The Journey is the Reward!

    Date: Thu, 15 Oct 2015 20:04:50 +0000 To: stickcounty@hotmail.com

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    1. I believe Richard had just one sibling, his sister Elvira Pluke. Perhaps some of the other Rickmans know if the Civil Aeronautics Board ever issued a final report on the crash. You’d think with catastrophic engine failure there might have been a lawsuit. But this was well before there were lawyers on every corner. I’ll keep looking to see if I can find the investigator’s crash report.

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  2. My father is Jeffrey Daxe. He was the volunteer diver who recovered the Rickman family from Lake Michigan. He is now 90 years old, and to this day recalls the story of this tragedy.

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  3. Joe, sorry about the delayed response. He never wrote anything about the day that I am aware. I accidently came across the article while doing a search for something else. Sadly his memory is fading. My dad was recently visiting my sister on Lake Michigan and spent long periods of time gazing over the lake. When he would see boaters or wind surfers he seemed very concerned that they may be in trouble. Each time, the story of the plane crash would ensue. My dad had told me the story many times before. He told of a certain degree of animosity from the police and fire divers that he found the victims first. As he told the story of the recovery of the victims, his face would transform to one with a look of concern. He would look away from his outstretched hand almost as if he could see or didn’t want to see the faces of the victims as he brought them to the surface. I believe he witnessed the plane go into the water, but he also had working knowledge of nearby Meigs Field which may have been where the pilot had taken off from or returning to. He lived in an apartment across Lakeshore Drive and that is why he was in the area or able to gather his equipment so readily. My father had also been a lifeguard in Miami Beach as a young man. If I ever find information pertaining to the accident, I will certainly reach out to you.

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    1. Would you mind if I used some of your comments above in a follow-up blog post? I will send it to you in advance to make sure all is ok with you. The impact this had on your father is very powerful.

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  4. I don’t mind you using my comment at all. I believe the experience had a tremendous impact on his life. Interestingly, I flew with my dad many times, but he never pushed me in to flying. I also learned how to swim and snorkel very well but was never encouraged to dive. My dad is an amazing man. I know more about him now than I did as a young man. He was never over protective of me or my sister but always seemed to have a fear for the worst which I could never explain. I guess he was trying to protect us any way he could.

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    1. Do you have a photograph of your father, either as a pilot or a diver? I found a newspaper photo showing him in a helicopter cockpit, but it’s hard to tell who it is. I’m going to write a short followup.

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  5. hi Joe I’m sorry if my story seems a little strange but I was wondering if you had any more info on this Rickman family or know anyone that might… my mother was born in 1967 and ever since she was old enough to talk she would drive my grandparents crazy of stories of how she’s not her real mom she wants her other mom stories of how her mom and dad and sisters and brothers were in a plane crash even at two years old telling my grandma that she wanted to go to Wisconsin to her other family my grandparents didn’t know what to do they even had her seen by a doctor because they thought she was crazy and didn’t know how to handle all of her stories. anyways its a story that has been talked about in our family for years, i decided today to do some research and boy was I shocked to see a plane crash of a family of six that fit the description of my mother’s story… in my mother’s story she has idioms of and older style home and a room with yellow walls and some kind of detail like acorns or something on it I’m not sure if there is a address or any family pictures of their home before they passed. I’m not trying to get anything out of this except for maybe make my mom feel a little less crazy for her visions as a child I know this Is a very strange story I usually font believe in this sort of thing however when I searched and found very similar details to my mother’s story I felt I had to look further let me know if you can be of any help thanks

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    1. Hello, Maranda. This plane crash occurred in 1960, around seven years prior to your mother’s birth. Although the Rickman family was native to Wisconsin Rapids, they were living near Detroit at the time of the crash.

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