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Officer Alex Nestor "Nick" Ilnicki
(Aug. 1, 1920 – Aug. 30, 1966)

Officer Lawrence Douglas "Larry" Amberg
(Oct. 22, 1938 – Aug. 30, 1966)

As the city of Los Angeles expanded to cover an area of more than 500 square-miles, the LAPD launched its airborne program in 1956 with one helicopter. A second helicopter was added in 1963, and a third in 1965.

The Helicopter Unit was expanded in 1974 and became the Air Support Division, with 15 helicopters, a small plane and 77 sworn personnel. Today, the division has 19 helicopters and a twin-turboprop plane, 88 sworn personnel, and is the largest municipal airborne law enforcement operation in the world, assisting with arrests, pursuits and crimes in progress.

In the 1960s, the helicopters were used primarily for traffic patrol, and were part of the department’s Traffic Enforcement Division.

On Tuesday, Aug. 30, 1966, Officers Alex “Nick” Ilnicki, 46, and Lawrence “Larry” Amberg, 27, were in LAPD’s Air 1 helicopter, flying northbound over the Pasadena (110) Freeway near Dodger Stadium at about 5:50 p.m., observing the evening traffic. Ilnicki was piloting the helicopter, while Amberg was the observer. They had been airborne for more than two hours, and were returning to their base in Glendale.

At the same time, a helicopter owned by radio station KMPC and piloted by Max Schumacher, 40, a popular traffic reporter in the Los Angeles area known as “Captain Max,” was about 500 feet over Dodger Stadium and heading south, responding to reports of a shooting in downtown Los Angeles.

Schumacher had two passengers in his helicopter -- Buckley “Buck” Newcomb, 40, and his wife, Eldah Lorraine Newcomb, 38, of San Gabriel, Calif., owners of Bucky’s Coffee Shop on Valley Boulevard in Alhambra. Schumacher often took friends along during his airborne traffic reports.

Both helicopters were Bell 47Gs, introduced in 1953 and built by the Bell Aircraft Corporation, and familiar to TV viewers from the late 1950s series “Whirlybirds” and the 1972-1983 series “M*A*S*H.” During the Korean War, the Bell 47G was used for reconnaissance and scouting, search and rescue, and was adapted to carry wounded soldiers and used as an aerial ambulance. The 47G can be recognized by the “soap bubble” canopy, exposed welded-tube tail boom, saddle fuel tanks, and skid landing gear.

The LAPD helicopter approached the KMPC helicopter and, according to a witness on the ground, “it didn’t look like they saw each other.” The two helicopters collided, and exploded over the freeway in a massive mid-air fireball.

Witnesses reported seeing the mid-air collision, an initial crash followed by a larger explosion, then watching as burning debris showered down near the baseball stadium and the freeway. The two main pieces of wreckage slammed into an embankment near the east parking lot at Dodger Stadium, then rolled down, coming to rest about 100 feet apart next to a fence on Stadium Way.

The two LAPD officers, Schumacher and his two passengers all died at the scene.

Two large pieces of wreckage hit Cathedral Catholic High School, on the east side of the freeway. A rotor blade crashed through a classroom roof, and a large piece of rotor equipment slammed through a wall of the school gymnasium. Incredibly, no one at the school, or anywhere else on the ground, was injured.

Debris from the crash was spread over more than a mile. Twenty firefighters, 25 police officers and a class of recruits from the nearby Police Academy responded to the accident scene.

Ilnicki and Schumacher were both experienced pilots. Ilnicki, a decorated fighter pilot for the Army Air Forces during World War II, joined the LAPD in 1945 and started piloting the police helicopter in 1965. He had more than 400 hours of flight experience. Schumacher was a Marine Corps turret gunner during World War II, and a fighter pilot during the Korean War. In 1956, he was awarded the Navy Air Medal for the night rescue of three Navy fliers whose planes crashed at sea.

Officer Ilnicki was born in Detroit, Mich., the youngest of four children of Nicholas and Stephania “Sophie” Kaliasza Ilnicki. His father was born in Austria in 1892, and came to the United States in 1910, when he was 18 years old. His mother was born in Poland in 1888, and arrived in the U.S. in 1911, when she was 23. Ilnicki’s parents met in New York, and were married in August 1912.

A year later, in August 1913, their first child, Jane, was born in Utica, N.Y. The family then moved to Detroit, where Andrew was born in August 1914, Thephelia “Phyllis” was born in March 1918, and Alex was born in August 1920. By 1930, the family had moved to Los Angeles, where Nicholas Ilnicki worked as a barber.

On March 3, 1941, 20-year-old Alex Ilnicki, who was working as a truck driver for a sandwich company, enlisted in the National Guard. He learned to fly, and served as a fighter pilot during World War II.

Ilnicki left a wife, Mary H. Ilnicki, 48; and two sons, John, 26, and James, 24; his parents; and three older siblings. He’s buried at Holy Cross Cemetery.

Officer Amberg was born in McLean County, in central Illinois, on Oct. 22, 1938, the youngest of three children of Alvin Merle Amberg, a farmer, and Leta Marie Rupp Amberg. He joined the LAPD in 1961, and served as a traffic observer for about a year before the fatal crash.

He left a wife, Marilyn Amberg, 32; a daughter, Sheryl Lyn, 10; a son, Bryan D., 9; his parents; and two older siblings. He’s buried at Forest Lawn Cypress.

Immediately after the collision, the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Federal Aviation Agency launched an in-depth investigation, examining the wreckage and taking statements from witnesses – including witnesses who reported seeing a sniper shooting at the helicopters from the south end of the Pasadena Freeway tunnel near Stadium way, just before the collision. No bullets were found in any of the victims, or in the crash wreckage, and that theory was discounted.

After a nearly year-long investigation, it was determined that both pilots were temporarily blinded by the glare from the late-afternoon sun, and were unable to see each other and avoid the collision.

The signs for Officers Ilnicki and Amberg is located on the east side of Solano Avenue, south of Amador Street, and south of the 110 Freeway.

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