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40 years ago: First parachuting stunt at the Arch ends in tragedy

40 years ago: First parachuting stunt at the Arch ends in tragedy

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The Gateway Arch, shaped like a magnet, exerts a powerful pull on pilots and parachutists. And long before Fair St. Louis featured sanction events, there  were daredevils who attempted to conquer the Arch on their own.

The first parachutist who tried fell to his death in the process.

He was Kenneth W. Swyers, 33, of Overland, who parachuted from an airplane on the morning of Nov. 22, 1980, and touched the top of the Arch.

But before he could jump with a second parachute, he slid down the north leg of the Arch and struck the pavement. He was dead before anyone could rush to his side.

Friends said Swyers hadn't intended to land on the Arch but had merely meant to sail between its legs, as many a pilot had done before him.

Four months before workers completed the Arch, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a stern warning to would-be stunt pilots: Don't even think about it.

But they thought about it, and then they did it.

The stunts began on June 22, 1966, when a twin-engined aircraft zipped beneath startled tourists at the top of the Arch.

It took more than 50 years to reveal the name of that pilot. In 2016, Donna Dorris, from Madison, Ill., told the Post-Dispatch that her father, Earl Bolin, was the pilot. She said the family has held onto the story as a secret for five decades.

Other airplane flights were reported on Dec. 12, 1969; Dec. 17, 1969; April 16, 1971; Oct. 8, 1971; Nov. 2, 1977; Jan. 30, 1981; and Feb. 5, 1981. (Some people insist they have photos of another plane making it through late in April 1971, but the photos are fuzzy, and the event is graded as ''unconfirmed.'')

After the third flight, officials put up a $500 reward, but nobody ever claimed it. In fact, the FAA has never been able to nail an airplane pilot.

But somebody got the number of a helicopter that went through the legs on April 6, 1984, and the FAA tracked down the pilot. (His name, like his fate, has been lost in the mists of time.)

A look at the building of the Arch

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