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|Born||October 1, 1947|
Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.
|Died||October 22, 1986 (aged 39)|
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Cause of death||Helicopter crash|
|Occupation||Musician, actress, comedian, traffic reporter|
Jane Dornacker (October 1, 1947 – October 22, 1986) was an American rock musician, actress, comedian, and traffic reporter. Dornacker was described as a "tall vivacious singer turned comedienne turned traffic reporter". She gained fame as an associate and songwriter for the San Francisco rock band The Tubes, and also led her own band, Leila and the Snakes.
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 delivering 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 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 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". Dornacker 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 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, Dornacker was giving one of the station's N-Copter traffic reports during the Joey Reynolds Show on WNBC Radio in New York City. At 4:44 p.m., the Enstrom F-28 helicopter she was aboard plunged into the Hudson River from an altitude of roughly 75 feet (23 m). 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 (5 to 6 m) of water. Both occupants were trapped for nearly 10–15 minutes before help arrived. Dornacker died on her way to Saint Vincent's Catholic Medical Center. She was 39 years old. Pilot Bill Pate, the only other occupant, 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.
Dornacker's then 16-year-old daughter, Naomi, was now-orphaned, having lost her father, Bob Knickerbocker, three months before her mother's death. Naomi received $325,000 in a settlement with owner Spectrum Helicopters of Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, and the maker of the helicopter.
Shortly after the incident, several on-air interviews with WNBC Radio staff described 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 Dornacker's now-orphaned daughter. WNBC played other interviews with friends and recordings of Dornacker 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.
All the New York stations grounded their traffic helicopters for a few days after the accident. A memorial concert in celebration of Dornacker 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.