October 1, 1947|
Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.
|Died||October 22, 1986
New York City, New York, U.S.
Cause of death
|Occupation||Musician, actress, comedienne, traffic reporter|
In 1986, while working for WNBC 660 AM Radio in New York City (which became WFAN in 1988), Dornacker was aboard during two unrelated crashes of the helicopters leased to WNBC. She survived the first crash, but was killed in the second crash into the Hudson River, which occurred as she was in the middle of a live traffic report. Her death came shortly after that of her husband, Bob Knickerbocker, orphaning their 16-year-old daughter. The NTSB investigation determined the cause of the fatal crash to have been use of improper parts and poor maintenance on the part of Spectrum Helicopters of Ridgefield Park, New Jersey.
Music and acting
Dornacker was the tall lead singer (Leila), keyboardist, and songwriter of the 1970s/1980s San Francisco "tack" rock group Leila and the Snakes. Pearl Gates and Pamela Wood provided supporting vocals. Their repertoire included "Rock and Roll Weirdos," "Pyramid Power" and a spoof version of Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" Gates later left (and took the band with her) to form Pearl Harbor and the Explosions. Guitarist Miles Corbin went on to form the surf instrumental band the Aqua Velvets.
Dornacker provided lead vocals on "Christopher Columbus" (1978), a song by R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders. With Ron Nagle, she co-wrote the humorous hit song "Don't Touch Me There" for The Tubes. The song was sung by Re Styles and appeared on The Tubes' second studio album, Young and Rich (1976), and was released as a 7" single in the US, the UK, and the Netherlands. The B-side was "Proud to Be an American". Jane had also toured with The Tubes as a backing singer and dancer.
Dornacker was also an actress. She appeared in playwright Sam Shepard's jazz opera Inacoma at San Francisco's Magic Theatre (1977) and was featured in other works by the Overtone Theatre. She appeared in The Stand-Up, Anita Sperm and as the mysterious Nurse Murch in the film The Right Stuff.
Stand up comedy and radio
Dornacker developed a successful career as a stand-up comic on the San Francisco circuit and did her first work as a traffic reporter in the early-mid-1980s for KFRC, a popular Top 40 radio station. She worked with Don Rose, who was that station's morning disc jockey at the time. She was noted for her exceptionally fast speech, so fast it required concentration to understand her. As she did traffic, she would tell her daughter Naomi to get up and get to school. She moved to New York City to become a much-loved, raspy-voiced "trafficologist" and "Jane-in-a-plane." After Dornacker died, Rose arranged several tributes to establish a college fund for Naomi.
Dornacker survived one helicopter crash only to die in a second helicopter crash in the same year. On April 18, 1986, Dornacker was reporting from a WNBC helicopter over the Hackensack River in New Jersey when the aircraft crashed into the river. She and the pilot survived and were able to swim to shore.
On October 22, 1986, at 4:44 PM, while Dornacker was giving one of the station's N-Copter traffic reports during the Joey Reynolds Show on WNBC Radio in New York City, the Enstrom F-28 helicopter she was reporting from plunged into the Hudson River from an altitude of roughly 75 feet. On her final radio broadcast she was giving a report of an accident involving a tractor-trailer and a car as well as a car fire. She also stated that the outbound Holland Tunnel was heavy with traffic and that the Lincoln Tunnel was much better with traffic and a car fire. Dornacker was starting her report for incoming New Jersey traffic when the helicopter suffered mechanical failure in mid broadcast and crashed. Her last words were "Hit the water, hit the water, hit the water!"
The F-28 helicopter nose-dived, struck the top of a chain link fence at a river pier, crashed into the Hudson River very near to the Manhattan shore and sank in 15 to 20 feet of water. Both occupants were trapped for nearly 10–15 minutes before help arrived. Dornacker died on her way to Saint Vincent's Hospital. She was 39 years old. Her pilot and the only other occupant, Bill Pate, was severely injured but survived.
In the subsequent investigation, the NTSB found that the sprag clutch that was installed in the helicopter, which was on lease to WNBC Radio by Spectrum Helicopters of Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, was a military surplus part which was not designed for use in a civilian aircraft, and that the part had not been adequately lubricated. It directly led to a mid-air seizure of the main rotor blades. The staff of WNBC were so appalled at the revelation of this malpractice at Spectrum Helicopters that at one point they threatened to resign en masse.
Final crash transcript
|“||Joey Reynolds: Okay, here's Jane Dornacker now in the N-Copter.
Dornacker: "Thank you very much, Joey. There was indeed an accident southbound on the Major Deegan at the Mosholu Parkway, an accident, a serious accident involving a tractor trailer and a car. It has been pushed off to the shoulder, but now watch out there now, because another flatbed truck is going to have to come to clear it, so yield right-of-way. Northbound on the BQE, we've spotted that disabled vehicle in the right-hand lane before the Kosciuszko, not causing much of a backup, but further northbound there on the BQE, traffic is very heavy, past the Kosciuszko all the way over to the LIE. The outbound Holland Tunnel extra-heavy for you right now; earlier there was a car fire at Hudson and Canal Street. It has been cleared out, except heading to New Jersey, the outbound Lincoln Tunnel looks a lot better for you. In New Jersey...
(helicopter engine overspeed)
Hit the water! Hit the water! Hit the water!
(Brief static followed by five seconds of dead air)
Reynolds: Okay, we're gonna play some, uh, some music here I think. Find out what's going on with the helicopter. Something happened there. It's, uh, quarter of 5; 16 'til 5 on WNBC, on the Joey Reynolds show. We're taking an N-Copter report from Jane Dornacker; let's check in and see how they're doing there, and then we'll come right back at you.
(Hip to Be Square plays)
Reynolds: I hope nothing happened with Jane. We had, uh, a helicopter report, from the N-Copter. Of course, you know, once before, we had this happen. A few months ago, she went down in the, uh, in the drink. Not she, I mean, she has a... pilot. Jane is, uh...
Other voice: Well, until we find out what's going on, we'll just...
Reynolds: Jane was up there just now giving us a report, and sometimes it just gets cut off, too, you know. It's just an electronic thing. But, uh, this time she said, uh, "hit the water," or something like that. So we're going to find out what's going on there, so stay tuned. We hope nothing... say a little prayer, hope nothing's, nothing's wrong. That's really a... (deep breath) that's a hard, hard job.
- Dornacker's then 16-year-old daughter, Naomi, received $325,000 in a settlement with owner Spectrum Helicopters of Ridgefield Park, NJ, and the maker of the helicopter. Naomi's father Bob Knickerbocker died shortly before her mother's death.
- All the New York stations grounded their traffic helicopters for a few days after that accident.
- A memorial concert in celebration of Jane took place at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco on Saturday, November 22, 1986.
- There is a memorial to her in Wayne, New Jersey, where Dornacker and her family lived.
- Shortly after the incident several on-air interviews with WNBC Radio staff describe the incident and their feelings in detail, including how other news organizations "pumped news" into the WNBC Radio newsroom as they were all in shock. Joey Reynolds broke down on-air when talking about her now orphaned child. WNBC played other interviews with friends and recordings of her talking about the first helicopter crash earlier that same year. Her music was also played during these tribute shows including "Don't Touch Me There" which she wrote for The Tubes.