Q. I hope you can recall an unfortunate incident that happened back in 1980. I believe it was about this time of year when an avid -- and experienced -- parachutist lost his life while trying to land on top of the Gateway Arch. He was an electrical wiring fabricator, whom I worked with at a plant in Creve Coeur, Mo.
-- Martin Bertulis, of Belleville
A. When it comes to tragic accidents and cruel legacies, this one surely has to rank among the top in St. Louis history.
As Thanksgiving neared in 1980, Kenneth Swyers was determined to land on the Gateway Arch by parachute. But after a few triumphant seconds on top of the iconic landmark, a gust of wind blew him off, killing him.
The morning of Saturday, Nov. 22, 1980, dawned cold and blustery, but Swyers reportedly was hot to accomplish his spectacular feat as a birthday gift for his wife.
The night before, the 33-year-old Overland, Mo., man had psyched himself by watching a TV special of daredevil parachute jumps, according to a history of the Arch by historian Dr. Bob Moore. Now, Swyers was ready to be included in any future program.
This wasn't something done on a whim by a jumping greenhorn. Swyers was an avid chutist who had made more than 1,600 jumps. Just three months before, he had quit as an instructor at the Archway Sports Parachute Center in Sparta with the highest possible rank.
"He was the best," Jim Twardowski, a fellow instructor, said in a news story the next day. "He was always one to offer himself."
So, facing weather conditions that probably should have deterred even an experienced chutist, Swyers left a note for his wife to come to the Arch to photograph his jump. Then, he headed to his plane.
At about 8:45 a.m., he jumped from the light aircraft, using a parafoil, which is described as "the most high performance type canopy there is." Swyers fell successfully to the top of the 630-foot-tall structure and reportedly grabbed onto the Arch's aircraft warning light to steady himself against the wind.
But as Swyers began to look for a way to polish off his stunt safely, a gust of wind caught his deflated parachute, breaking his grip on the light and sending him sliding down the north leg. When his attempt to open a backup chute failed, another gust blew him free of the Arch, and he landed on the terrazzo below.
Alerted that a fellow employee had seen an object falling down the north leg, park technician Liz Schmidt discovered Swyers lying amid his parachutes.
"An ambulance was on the scene by 8:59 a.m.," Moore wrote. "Mr. Swyers' wife ... saw her husband fall to his death. She came forward at the accident scene, viewing her husband's body and eventually covering his face with his parachute."
Swyers reportedly was pronounced dead at a hospital about an hour later. In December, Richard Skurat, of Overland, Mo., had his pilot's license suspended for 90 days for participating in the reckless act.
Of course, if you put up a monument like the Arch, you can expect people to try outdoing the fictional feats of the Slyman Brothers and Becky, Queen of Carpets. (Remember their Arch TV ads?) As a result, the Arch was less than a year old when the first plane flew through on June 22, 1966. A dozen followed, including a night flight on Nov. 2, 1977, when a plane without lights flew down Market Street at an altitude of 50 feet, through the Arch and across the river.
Some, of course, have tried to conquer the structure without an aircraft. On Oct. 29, 1983, 21-year-old David Adcock, started scaling the Arch using suction cups, but had barely gotten 20 feet up when he was talked out of his attempt. Nevertheless, he already had given T-shirts that read "1983 Arch Climb" to vendors to sell at a football game at Busch Stadium
And St. Louisans missed a chance to see Dan Koko make a free-fall from the top of Arch onto large cushions during the 1986 V.P. Fair when his request was denied. Koko boasted a world free-fall record for his 326-foot jump from Las Vegas' World Hotel in 1984.
Who is believed to be the only acting or past president to have gone to the top of the Gateway Arch the traditional way?
Answer to Sunday's trivia: It's a good thing that fueling up jet planes isn't self-service like gas stations for cars. Can you imagine a pilot having to pump 57,285 gallons into his plane before jetting off to London or Japan? That's the maximum fuel capacity of a Boeing 747-400, which, if you figure its maximum range of about 8,350 miles, gets just a shade under 7 gallons to the mile as it cruises at 570 mph at 35,000 feet. Maximum takeoff weight is 875,500 pounds. Other Boeing jets can handle even more fuel; the 747-8 can hold 64,055 gallons, according to specs at www.boeing.com.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org