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Kenneth Schechter dies at 83; Navy pilot performed heroic blind landing

December 23, 2013

"Instinctively, I pulled back on the stick to gain altitude," he wrote in an account for the 2001 book, "Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul." "When I came to, sometime later, I couldn't see a thing. … I felt for my upper lip. It was almost severed from the rest of my face."

As Thayer gave step-by-step instructions, Schechter leveled his plane. He dumped his canteen over his head and, for a moment, saw his controls through a red-rimmed veil. But then — nothing.

"Get me down, Howie," he moaned. "Get me down."

Thayer guided his stricken friend toward the waters off Wonsan, where, he hoped, U.S. destroyers would pick him up.

But Schechter refused to bail out. On his second mission in Korea, he had seen his wing man, Lt. Cmdr. Tom Pugh, leap into the same waters. Pugh drowned before help reached him.

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"Jump out in that icy water blind? You'd have to be insane," Schechter said in a 1995 Times interview.

Thayer didn't argue. But the nearest air base was 30 miles away and he didn't think Schechter would make it.

Schechter was weakening. Thayer, close enough to see his friend's head slumping, looked around desperately for a field, a rice paddy, any place flat. Then he remembered the Jersey Bounce, a rutted strip that had been used by reconnaissance planes.

"Schechter, for all his loss of blood, handled his plane beautifully," a writer for the Saturday Evening Post recounted in 1954. "Spare energy and strength came from some reservoir God stores up for wounded men to draw on when a final, desperate effort is needed."

Approaching the trip's most difficult maneuver, Thayer told Schechter to lower his wheels.

"The hell with that!" Schechter barked, figuring a belly landing would be safer than slamming onto uneven ground with his wheels down.

Thayer remained unflappable.

"We're heading straight," he intoned. "Hundred yards to runway. You're 50 feet off the ground. You're level. You're OK. You're over the runway. Twenty feet. Kill it a little. You're setting down. OK, OK, OK. Cut!"

Thayer flew back to the Valley Forge, where sailors who had heard the tense transmission mobbed him with congratulations.

Schechter was flown to the hospital ship Consolation and then military hospitals in Pusan, Korea and San Diego.

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