"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 20, 2023

Jerrold Potter's Flight Into Oblivion

"New York Daily News," September 22, 1968, via Newspapers.com

A while back, I wrote about the bizarre story of Alfred Loewenstein, the 1920s financier who inexplicably fell out of a plane traveling over the English Channel.  While researching the Loewenstein case, I was surprised to discover that, some forty years after Loewenstein's big dive, another man apparently suffered the same fate, under equally murky circumstances.

Jerrold Potter was 54 when he made his unenviable mark on aviation history.  He was an insurance executive and alderman from Pontiac, Illinois.  Potter was a successful and respected businessman, happily married, and as utterly normal as they come.  He was a jovial, outgoing man who belonged to various civic groups such as the Elks and the Chamber of Commerce.  To all appearances, he was honest, well-adjusted, and utterly content with his life.  If you wanted to write an upbeat version of "Babbitt," Jerrold Potter would be your role model.

On June 28, 1968, Pottter and his wife Carrie were among 23 passengers on a Purdue Aviation Corp. charter plane heading from Kankakee, Illinois to a Lions Club convention in Dallas.  It was a calm, beautiful day, and the flight started out as utterly uneventful.  When the plane was somewhere over Rolls, Missouri, Potter told his wife he was going to the lavatory, which was located in the tail of the plane, near the exit door.  After he had been gone for a few moments, the plane gave a slight bump, as if it had hit an air pocket.  This minor disturbance made Carrie Potter uneasy, so she asked the stewardess to check on her husband.

Everyone on the plane was about to get a severe shock.  The stewardess realized that the exit door was wide open, and the boarding stairs were lowered.  And Jerrold Potter was nowhere to be seen.  Carrie Potter tried to go towards the open door, but the crew stopped her.  "There was nothing I could have gained from it," she later said.  "From the look in the stewardess' eyes, I knew he was gone."

Considering the circumstances, the passengers and crew stayed admirably calm.  The door leading from the seating area to the baggage compartment was closed, in order to restrict the air flow, and the pilot, Miguel Cabeza, landed at the nearest airport, which was in Springfield, Mo.

Cabeza told investigators that when the plane was over the Ozark foothills he felt "a sudden jolt."  He sent his co-pilot, Roy Bacus, into the passenger compartment to investigate.  "He came back and told me a passenger was missing."  All Cabeza could surmise was that Potter must have mistaken the exit door for the one leading to the lavatory.  His theory was that Potter could have fallen against the door at the same time as it inexplicably popped open, causing the jolt to the plane.  His weight snapped the safety chain, and the unfortunate man plunged into the sky.

This explanation did not make Potter's disappearance any less baffling.  Another passenger, James Schaive, commented, "It just suddenly happened.  There was a loud noise, the plane sort of quivered a little bit and the door came open.  There was a rush of air...nobody actually saw Mr. Potter fall out.  He was there one second and gone the next.” 

Les Jones, the manager of the Springfield airport, found Cabeza's scenario unsatisfactory.  He noted, "It would take a concentrated effort to open the door during the flight."  The exit door was hinged at the top.  Opening it required turning a large handle at least 180 degrees--something that took a lot of effort.  For good measure, the door was decorated with large white lettering reading "DO NOT OPEN WHILE IN FLIGHT."  The door was securely locked on takeoff, and as the plane was not pressurized, you could stand in the open doorway during a flight and not be sucked out.  Opening the door during flight would be particularly difficult, and the effort would cause a rush of noise and air that would have been obvious to everyone on the plane.

In short, the plane was, sensibly enough, designed to make it virtually impossible to accidentally fall out.

Police and volunteers spent four days searching the Ozarks for Potter's body, but no trace of him was ever found.  Mrs. Potter later sued Purdue Aviation Corp, asserting that their negligence led to her husband's tragic accident.  She eventually settled for $80,000, most of which went into the pockets of her attorneys.

The question of what exactly caused Potter's presumably fatal disappearance can never be known for sure, for the simple reason that no one has ever been able to construct a fully plausible explanation for the tragedy.  An accidental fall seemed highly improbable, but suicide seemed even more unlikely.  In recent years, the mystery has become a popular topic on internet discussion boards, where "solutions" ranging from "faked his own death" to "murder" to--wait for it!--"kidnapped by a UFO" have been offered.  

Speculate away.  Your guess for what happened to Jerrold Potter is as good as anyone's.


  1. One assumes the baggage area in the aeroplane was examined; the door was 'closed' but not necessarily locked. It is far-fetched to think it, but Potter could have opened the door and then hid in the baggage area until landing. It might require the connivance of the aircrew - or at least the pilot - which might account for Cabeza's 'unsatisfactory' theory. But since there is no mention of missing money, or even of insurance fraud - that probably would have been speculated by any insurance company - the motive for such a plot, other than wanting simply to disappear (and that, too, is an unsatisfactory idea) is lacking.

  2. I suspect that the most likely explanation is that the exit door wasn’t locked before take-off, as it should have been.

    Potter might have stumbled against the door, which then fell open. He might have turned the wrong way and pushed on the door. It’s even possible that he noticed something wrong with the door and grabbed the handle to shut it properly, only for the door to fly open and pull him out with it.

    But once the door had been opened it would be almost impossible to prove that it hadn’t been properly secured in the first place.


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