April Fools’ Day volcano prank horrified locals 50 years ago: 'Gone too far'


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April Fools’ Day is an annual custom on April 1 consisting of practical jokes and hoaxes. Pranksters regularly expose their tricks by shouting, or writing in some cases, ‘April Fools!’ at the recipient. The unofficial holiday has been celebrated by different cultures across the world for centuries, putting some comic relief into an otherwise ordinary day.

Among the famous jokes along the years are Richard Branson’s failed UFO stunt and Burger King’s ‘left-handed burger’.

Back in 1974, prankster Oliver ‘Porky’ Bickar went one step further with his antics in Sitka, Alaska.

Alaska’s southern coast lies in what’s called the ‘Ring of Fire’ — a line of volcanic activity that arcs from the Chilean shores up and across southern Alaska, and then down to the Philippines.

There are 50 active volcanoes in Alaska, with two of them blowing their top every year on average, leaving many Alaskans constantly wary that the next eruption could be just around the corner.

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Mount Edgecumbe volcano

Mt Edgecumbe had not erupted in 4,000 years before the hoax. (Image: Public Domain)

Mount Edgecumbe volcano

Mt Edgecumbe is part of the notorious Ring of Fire. (Image: Alaska Volcano Observatory)

Just across the bay from Sitka stands Mount Edgecumbe — a stratovolcano that had been dormant for around 9,000 years.

When residents saw black smoke spewing from the volcano on April 1, 1974, they panicked and assumed Edgecumbe was rumbling back to life.

Little did they know Mr Bickar and a group of mischievous friends had scaled the mountain with 70 tyres, throwing them into the crater and setting them alight.

A plume of black smoke started to rise skyward within minutes.

Alaska Airlines plane

Alaska Airlines later cited the success of the prank. (Image: GETTY)

According to The Guardian, a coastguard helicopter flew over the crater, only to discover the words “April Fool” spray painted in the snow, with Mr Bickar standing gleefully alongside it.

The prank had been several years in the making, with Mr Bickar originally devising his plan in 1971.

However, wanting to maximise its effectiveness, he waited three years until the visibility conditions were right.

Mr Bickar and his friends had been careful to notify the Federal Aviation Authority of their plans, and warned the police too, but forgot to tell the coastguard.

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The prank succeeded way beyond Mr Bickar’s wildest imagination, making headlines across the world.

According to the Museum of Hoaxes, once it was confirmed that the smoke was nothing to be concerned about, the reaction was largely positive.

Alaska Airlines thought it was brilliant, and included Mr Bickar in a 1975 campaign of the greatest “brags” pulled off by Alaskans.

Mr Bickar told them: “On April Fool’s Day, I hired a chopper and flew 70 old, kerosene-soaked tyres on top of the dormant volcano.

Oliver 'Porky' Bickar

Mr Bickar in 1972, while the prank was in the works. (Image: FUTURE NATIONAL COAST GUARD MUSEUM)

“Mount Edgecumbe, that looms over Sitka.

“I set the tires on fire, and the billowing, black smoke created one hell of a commotion in Sitka.

“I dare you to top that April Fool’s joke.”

Yet the best response of all, Mr Bickar said, came six years later when Mount St Helens blew its top in an eruption that caused approximately $3.5billion (£2.66billion).

Within days of the eruption, Mr Bickar received a letter from a lawyer in Denver.

Inside was a clipping of a photo in the Denver Post of Mt St Helens erupting, accompanied by a note which said: “This time, you little b******, you’ve gone too far.”

Mr Bickar had established a reputation as a notorious prankster even before the 1974 hoax.

Other pranks included using a backhoe to drop a tree in his friend’s driveway and putting plastic flamingos in trees to confuse tour boats looking for wildlife.

Such was the notoriety of Mr Bickar’s volcano trick, it was named third on the Museum of Hoaxes’ ‘Top 100 April Fool’s Day Hoaxes of All Time’ list.


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