From the ground, I could see that Lowrey had maneuvered the biplane under Osipoff, but the aircraft was whipped in the transport’s slipstream and Osipoff twice got dragged across the wing. Lowrey then flew alongside the transport and signaled Johnson to try climbing to find calmer air. Soaked in sweat, Johnson let the nose come up again. He had enough fuel for another 10 minutes.
Time was shortening for Osipoff too. Being jerked through the hatch had broken his chest strap, and his leg straps were hanging on his ankles. “We could see that he was in pretty bad shape because there was blood dripping off the helmet,” McCants later said.
At 3,000 feet Lowrey tried another pass. With McCants standing up in the rear cockpit, Lowrey got Osipoff lined up with the biplane’s left wing and edged in, fighting to keep the propeller away from the jumpmaster’s head. Then Osipoff was above the aircraft, almost close enough to reach. Ahead a little more. Up a little. McCants and Osipoff grabbed each other’s waists and held on. Osipoff’s head went into the rear cockpit. But he was still enmeshed in the lines, and try as he might, McCants couldn’t make room for more than Osipoff’s head. The cockpit was too small.
Osipoff lay on top of the fuselage, propped in a machine gun crotch aft of the second cockpit, clinging to McCants. Both were hampered by the shroud lines that were tangled in the static cable. Knife in hand, McCants sawed hard to cut Osipoff free. Each second counted—the two aircraft could not stay precisely in position for long.
Then a gust flung the SOC up. With a grinding scream, its propeller sliced 12 inches off the transport’s tailcone fairing.
Lowrey told me later, when I interviewed all the players for a magazine article, that the impact dizzied him for an instant. He realized that by some miracle he was still flying, and so was the transport, a safe distance above him. Osipoff was still horizontal on the top of the biplane’s fuselage. The parachute swirled behind, caught in the SOC’s tail.
The collision might have been guided by angels. When the biplane’s nose came up, the shroud lines fell across its upper wing, and the propeller neatly severed them when it sliced into the R2D’s tailcone fairing.
Johnson glided the transport to North Island and landed safely. But Lowrey was in trouble. Part of the parachute jammed the biplane’s rudder, leaving him with almost no rudder control. Clutching each other against the slipstream, Osipoff and McCants waited, hoping Lowrey could bring the airplane in.
Lowrey managed to bounce it onto the strip at North Island, chute and all, and was immediately surrounded by cheering crew.
Osipoff, who had endured 33 minutes of being dragged around the sky in a 110-mph wind, was promoted to first lieutenant after his release from the hospital. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox presented Lowrey and McCants with the Distinguished Flying Cross for “extraordinary heroism…[in] one of the most brilliant and daring rescues within the annals of our Naval history.”