The September 1960 Chicago plane crash that killed all six members of the Richard Rickman family was caused by a faulty engine valve and an intense oil fire, according to a federal investigation report obtained through the National Archives.
Richard E. Rickman, 34, was flying his wife and four children from Wisconsin Rapids to Detroit on Labor Day 1960 when his Beechcraft C35 Bonanza (tail number N-5816C) plunged into Lake Michigan with flames trailing from the engine. Rickman, his wife Helen and children Richard, Robert, Catherine and Patricia were killed in the crash. The plane and its passengers sunk into the dark waters of Lake Michigan off Chicago’s Oak Street Beach. [See related: Entire Rickman Family Killed in 1960 Plane Crash]
It was a horrific, haunting tragedy. The Rickmans, native to central Wisconsin, were returning home to the Detroit area after a Labor Day vacation. Following the advice of the airport manager in Wisconsin Rapids, Rickman flew across Wisconsin and then along the Lake Michigan shoreline to Chicago. That’s where the trouble started. Rickman radioed the tower at Meigs Field in Chicago that he had an emergency and needed to land. [See an aerial view of Meigs Field] He never got the chance. The plane nose-dived into the water about 1 mile offshore from a crowded Oak Street Beach. All six Rickmans were killed.
The Civil Aeronautics Board began investigating the crash just as the sections of damaged plane were recovered from the depths of Lake Michigan. The wings were sheared off on impact. Witnesses on the beach reported seeing flames coming from the engine as the single-engine plane dove into the water. The probe was led by Clifford G. Sheker, the CAB’s air safety investigator. The 205-horsepower Continental engine was recovered and sent off for analysis. Sheker testified before a Cook County coroner’s inquest jury twice — in September and October 1960. His preliminary finding in October was that engine trouble caused the crash.
That’s where the public attention stopped. The probe continued and led to a report of findings in April 1961, but there was no media coverage on the final cause of the crash. The Hanneman Archive began a search for Sheker’s report back in 2015. It was not on the Federal Aviation Administration’s online database of old CAB crash investigations. The CAB was a predecessor to the National Transportation Safety Board.
We enlisted the help of the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. After several months, an archivist named Amy R. found the answer in April 1961 meeting minutes from the Civil Aeronautics Board. She was kind enough to snap digital photos of the report narrative and send them via email. As far as we can tell, these details were not published by news outlets at the time.
The report said Rickman was about a mile offshore headed south at 7:26 p.m. when he broadcast a Mayday call: “I have an engine failure or something – I am coming in!” The flight was immediately cleared for emergency landing at Meigs Field, a single-runway airport on Northerly Island, a peninsula along Chicago’s lakefront. Sheker’s report described what happened:
“About this time ground witnesses and the occupants of another plane saw the aircraft afire in flight. They observed the plane make a left turn and go out of control twice before it crashed into Lake Michigan and exploded.”
The Continental Motors E-185 engine became disabled by an “intense oil fire” that originated in the area of the exhaust heater muff. The No. 3 exhaust valve showed “fatigue failure” that led to the fire. The engine crankcase was broken open and the Nos. 3 and 4 pistons and connecting rods were broken. The “intense, in-flight fire” entered the cabin in the area of the rudder pedals and “subjected the entire cabin to fire.”
Rickman was an experienced pilot with 379 total flight hours, including 228 hours with the Beechcraft C35. His Beechcraft was manufactured in 1951 and licensed to Rickman in 1957. It’s unknown if the CAB or later the FAA took any action as a result of the Rickman crash, such as issuing an airworthiness letter. There was no indication in the CAB report of the maintenance history of the plane, or if the No. 3 exhaust valve had caused other engine fires.
Just 18 months before, superstar singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed when the Beechcraft C35 Bonanza in which they were traveling crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa. February 3, 1959 became known as “The Day the Music Died,” memorialized in Don McLean’s 1971 song, “American Pie.” The Civil Aeronautics Board faulted the pilot for taking off in poor weather when he was restricted to visual flight rules.
One of the most heartbreaking scenes from Sept. 5, 1960 was the sight of little Catherine Rickman, 4, being carried from a rescue boat to an ambulance by lifeguard Fred Rizzo. Boaters found her floating in the water shortly after the crash. She had burns on her face, legs and feet. The girl was revived briefly in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, but she died a short time later. Her grandparents, Edwin and Renata Rickman of Saginaw, Mich., identified her body. The search for her parents and siblings went on for days.
The diver who first found the bodies was Jeffrey Daxe, 34, a Chicago pilot and lifeguard. Daxe lived just across Lakeshore Drive near the beach. He was able to quickly gather his diving gear and have a lifeguard row him out to the crash site. The experience haunted Daxe for decades, according to his son, Jeff Daxe of Dayton, Ohio:
“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.”
The senior Daxe went on to a career in aviation, and moved to Valparaiso, Ind. He told the story of the Rickman crash often. Even in recent years, when visiting Lake Michigan, his son said, he spent a long time gazing out on the water, expressing concern for the safety of boaters and windsurfers. “I believe the experience had a tremendous impact on his life.”
Tom Metcalf remembers the Rickmans well, growing up for a time in the same neighborhood in Redford Township, a western suburb of Detroit. “I remember playing with Richard and Robert,” said Metcalf, who was 6 at the time of the crash. “I also remember flying with them in their aircraft. My father was a military pilot and he and Mr. Rickman were friends with a common interest in flying. I also remember my mother chasing some news reporter out of our back yard after catching him trying to ask me questions after the accident.”
Like Daxe, Metcalf was deeply affected by the Rickman tragedy. He said he hopes to visit the family’s graves at Forest Hill Cemetery in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. “I have thought of them often and sent prayers their way throughout my life,” Metcalf said.
Richard E. Rickman, the son of longtime shoe-store proprietor Edwin J. Rickman, grew up in Wisconsin Rapids. He was a descendant of pioneer resident Matthias Hanneman, who came to Wisconsin in 1866 from Pomerania. He served in the U.S. Naval Reserve in World War II. His father had served in WWI. 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 epitaph on the Rickman Family monument at Forest Hill says simply: “Not my will, but Thine be done.”