Today, July 6th, is the 83rd anniversary of the Stinson Airport tragedy, in which two pilots went up into the air above Route 66 to rescue an amateur parachutist whose chute had caught on the wing of her own plane above the airport. Four people went into the air that day, if you count the parachutist’s pilot, but only three came down safely: the would-be rescuer himself died while the parachutist landed safely and lived.
The dead hero’s name was Bruno Schustek. A German-American, he had flown for the German military and was by then a member of the Illinois Glider Association. He’s forgotten today, with not even a lowly grave marker to pinpoint his grave at Elmlawn Cemetery in suburban Elmhurst. Led by Keith Yearman, my colleagues and I have begun a campaign to collect funds for a proper gravestone for Schustek (more on that below), because what he did was extraordinary even for his times.
Stinson Airport, of course, once stood where the disused Vulcan quarry now sits in suburban McCook, IL, just south of 55th Street and east of East Avenue. On the morning of July 6, 1930, it all began when a ditzy 20-year-old patent medicine heiress by the name of “Madcap” Merry Fahrney, a gal with far more money than sense, decided she would learn parachuting that day. Fahrney was already an aviatrix, and her family had a summer home as well as an airplane field and an engine manufacturing firm near Oshkosh, WI. Oshkosh today is famous for being the site of the great annual fly-in for the Experimental Aircraft Association aka EAA, the principal aviators’ group for cutting-edge and vintage planes. Back then, however, it was a small town surrounded by a rural area with some fashionable summer homes.
It would be Merry Fahrney’s first jump that day. Fahrney went up without an instructor or trainer, only her pilot L.F. Kline – something that would never be allowed today and probably wasn’t the smartest move even back then. The plan was for Merry to jump once the plane hit an altitude to 1,000 feet above the airport. She jumped, all right – but her chute got tangled on the wing, leaving crazy Merry dangling under her plane, unable to get free.
Schustek and his friend and fellow pilot, Charles ‘Bud’ Geiger, were both at the airport that day and saw the heiress’s dangerous predicament. Of course, there weren’t any proper rescue protocols for such a calamity. Schustek and Geiger devised a simple but perilous plan: Geiger would fly his plane and get just above Kline’s plane, and Schustek would climb down a secured rope and try to free Fahrney’s chute form the wing. Schustek had no safety harness, no backup chute of his own, no nothing. And by the time he began climbing down that rope toward Fahrney and her hung-up chute, he and the girl were both about 600 feet above the ground. More than enough die if either fell.
Bottom line: Fahrney’s parachute was freed, though no one was quite sure how, and she dropped safely to the ground. Some accounts suggest that the parachute freed itself; others say Schustek managed to detach it. Schustek, on the other hand, tried to climb back up to his own aircraft – but exhausted by his efforts, he slipped and fell instead to his death, in front of horrified onlookers.
The official cause of death was a fractured skull. The real cause, of course, was Schustek’s inexperience in such a rescue and the lack of appropriate equipment – and Merry Fahrney’s ill-advised attempt to parachute the first time without an instructor there to check out her chute in advance and walk her through the process. On reaching solid ground, Fahrney’s first words were reportedly, “Wasn’t it all just too thrilling!” Thus, the ditz appellation. There is no evidence as to whether her remark preceded or followed her rescuer’s fall to his death – or whether she ever expressed any regret at the death of her rescuer.
Schustek was duly lauded at the time of his death: 30 airplanes flew over his grave at Elmlawn, dropping flowers in a graveside salute. In 1933, the American Legion and German Consulate held another ceremony at his grave, at which there was a second honor flight and flower drop. At that second service, a small marker was reportedly placed on his grave; but there is no marker there today, and the cemetery office has no record of a headstone or other marker ever having been on the grave. Schustek is buried in Section 9, plot 456, his heroic act almost completely forgotten. You’d think a hero would have earned a bit more than that.
When we found out about Schustek’s unmarked grave, it bothered all of us; but Keith was the one who kept saying we should do something more. Well, this week my other colleague and co-author, Joe Kubal, opened an account for a memorial fund at a local bank, and as we get more organized in the coming weeks, we’ll let you know where you can contribute to the fund for Schustek’s gravestone. Maybe by next year’s anniversary, the hero will no longer lie in an unmarked grave.
Until next time,