Retired Guys: The Gambler’s Special

November 30, 2018

With the passing of retired LAFD member George Fischer in September, 2018, I thought that it would be appropriate to tell about one of the most crucial events in our lives.

In the simple days of the 1960’s there were no Indian casinos in Southern California so, with a few exceptions, the gambling was in Nevada. El Capitan Casino, a small casino in Hawthorne, Nevada contracted old Douglas DC-3 airliners to transport gamblers from Burbank airport to Hawthorne for a night of gambling. The tickets were $5 each and came with a free steak dinner. Hawthorne lies almost due north of Bishop and the route of flight traversed the Owens Valley on the east side of the High Sierras. On one fateful flight in February, 1969, LAFD Firefighter Robert Kelly, FS12-B, his wife, brother and fiancé decided to take this seemingly good deal and flew with 27 other souls to Hawthorne. It turned very stormy that night but the pilots decided to attempt the flight home. They never made it. The news of the ancient DC-3’s disappearance activated one of the largest aerial searches in California and Nevada history.

Civil Air Patrol airplanes were tasked with searching the mountains along the supposed route. Because a firefighter and his family were onboard, it seemed like every off-duty firefighter or police officer that were pilots and CAP members were involved in the search.

One of those aircraft was piloted by Firefighter George Fischer, FS 95-A. After the “Gamblers Special,” as the press named it, went missing, the weather turned especially nasty with “Sierra Wave” conditions – severe downdrafts on the eastern side of the High Sierras. George and his crew of two were tasked with searching Mt. Tom, northwest of Bishop. Caught in the wave, George’s Beechcraft Bonanza was slammed into the 11,000-foot side of the mountain. George and his crew all survived the crash but were seriously injured and all had broken backs. The search base at Bishop Airport surprisingly never missed the downed crew and closed for the night. Very early the next morning, a call for all available CAP search aircraft was issued.

Later that morning, a North American T-6 search aircraft, piloted by a LAPD sergeant, Robert Herrera found the missing search plane and determined that the crew was alive. All other search aircraft were returned to Bishop. As part of the search party, I landed my plane at Bishop Airport and inquired as to who was going to rescue George and his crew. The search base personnel’s reply was they were waiting for the military to figure something out. Knowing that a military response would take many hours in worsening weather, and that George and his crew were injured, I decided to attempt to organize a rescue.

I noticed a Bell 47G3B-1 helicopter owned by Western Helicopters parked out on the ramp so I called the pilot, Jerry Leeper at his motel and he rushed to the airport. He inquired as to how high it was at the crash scene. He then proceeded to adjust the turbocharger on the helicopter to its highest setting and took off for the 11,000-foot level of Mt. Tom by himself. In a daring feat of helicopter airmanship at extremely high-density altitude and severe downdrafts, Jerry was able to rescue all three injured crewmembers and save their lives.

The Gamblers Special DC-3 was found the following August after the snow had melted on the northeast face of Mt. Whitney. There were no survivors.

George became a lifelong friend and he maintained a close friendship with Jerry Leeper until Jerry’s passing several years ago. George lectured about his experiences on Mt. Tom for decades afterwards.

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Pat Quinn is a Wright Brothers master pilot having no accidents or violations for 50 years. He invites all firefighters and friends to visit him at Hangar 8, Stearman Taxiway at the historic Santa Paula Airport.

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