Dec 10, 2008

A story from my past

Johnny Yen had a wonderful post about the Our Lady of Angels Fire that I was memorized with. It was such a sad tale, but it reminded me of an event in my life that I had a little trouble tracking down some details on. being from a very small town, there weren't many events that happened of importance growing up. There were some mining tragedies in the early days, fires, and the usual number of missing people and crime. But nothing that really made the evening news so to speak.

One event I remember my dad talking about as I grew up was the crash of a plane that was one of two carrying the Wichita State football team. The reason it sticks in my mind is that dad was one of the people who was first on the scene that day, and he really didn't like talking about it. Let me tell you about the crash and what led up to it.

On Friday, October 2, 1970, a twin-engine Martin 404 carrying Wichita State football players, staff and fans to a game in Utah struck treetops and crashed near Loveland Pass in Colorado resulting in the deaths of 31 of 40 aboard. Wichita State signed a contract more than two months earlier calling for a larger and more powerful DC-6 to be used and the flight plan did not call for the aircraft to be anywhere near Loveland Pass on that day. A series of tragic mistakes resulted in this crash, that never should have happened. The DC-6 suffered damage in a wind storm and was not repaired in time to be used in early October. The smaller Martin 404's from Fairchild Hiller were pressed into service, but they had not been flown since 1967 by Ozark Air. Nevertheless, a pair of Martin aircraft were brought out of storage in Las Vegas in early September, recertified for flying, and flown to Wichita the morning of October 2nd. Both of the 404s would be needed to carry the nearly 80 passengers the DC-6 was originally scheduled to carry. The temporary FAA license to fly them was good for 10 days only and had expired by the day of the flight.

Although the aircraft were painted red and white, the team referred to the two aircraft as the "gold" plane, which contained the starting players, coaches, and boosters, and the "black" plane, which carried the backups and other personnel. Black and gold were Wichita State's colors.

It was a beautiful, clear fall day with weather not expected to present at problem for the flights. The crew of the "gold" plane consisted of Captain Danny Crocker, a 27-year-old mechanic with piloting credentials, and his boss, First Officer Ronald Skipper, the president of Golden Aviation. The flight plans for both aircraft were provided by first officer Ralph Hill, who worked with Captain Leland Everett in the cockpit of the "black" plane. The plan called for the aircraft to fly to Denver to refuel and then fly to Logan via Laramie, Wyoming. This route provided ample time to get the aircraft at a high enough altitude to clear the Rocky Mountains and, as captain Everett of the "black" plane later testified, it provided more "back doors" through which to escape if there was trouble.

With 35 passengers and a crew of four on board the gold plane and 36 passengers and a crew of three on board the black plane, the aircraft left Wichita a little after 9:00 a.m. Starting linebacker Steve Moore had worked near Loveland Pass and knew how breathtakingly beautiful the area was first hand. Former Wichita State basketball player Gary Curmode told the New Times in 1998, "He's the one who asked the pilot, 'Can we go a different route so I can show the guys where I work?' And the pilot, not being familiar with it, he looked at the map and said, 'Yeah, we can do it.'" Bad mistake #1, the pilot looking at the map knew he was flying up a valley, but didn't know at the end of the valley was Loveland Pass, and the Continental Divide rising up to 13,000 feet.

At just before half past noon, each plane made its way to the runway for departure. Captain Everett of the "black" plane was aware of the "gold" plane's new flight plan, but stuck to his original one and took off from Denver northward to Laramie - a much safer if less scenic route. The "gold" plane was a full 5165 pounds overweight at takeoff. Though the aircraft would be expected to burn a few thousand pounds of fuel during the flight, the plane would even have been over 2,000 pounds overweight for the landing in Logan, Utah according to NTSB calculations.

The overweight plane lumbered down the runway and took a long time to get airborne. When it was a little over a mile past the end of the runway, the air traffic controller who cleared the flight noticed that the aircraft was unusually low and trailing smoke from the right engine. He called the aircraft to see if there was a problem. "No, we're just running a little rich, is all," was the reply and the last words heard by anyone of the ground from the flight.

The aircraft made its way north out of Denver for a time and then headed west and south in the Rockies in order to find their way into the Clear Creek Valley, which they did around Idaho Springs. (Idaho Springs is where I grew up) The altitude of Stapleton Airport is approximately 5300 feet, but they were already flying through a valley that was at a minimum 7500 feet and rising; Georgetown, another 12 miles to the west, was 8500 feet.

In order to really "wow" the passengers, First Officer Skipper, who was actually flying the aircraft, flew below the mountaintops within the valley itself. By the time the aircraft made it to Georgetown, witnesses on the ground were concerned. An unidentified pilot for a major airline who happened to witness the plane as if flew over told the NTSB that it was no more than 1,000 - 1,500 feet above the town and appeared to be climbing at a slow airspeed.

An engineer with Martin Marietta also saw ill-fated aircraft as it passed over Georgetown and stated: "I had been a military pilot of multi-engine aircraft during World War II and was awed by the aspect of such a large aircraft cruising up the valley at approximately 500 to 1,000 feet above the terrain. The engines sounded as though they were throttled back and not at high RPM, a condition not in keeping with what would be expected if the aircraft was attempting to clear the Continental Divide. When the plane made a turn to the right, I noticed a mushiness to its flight characteristics. Both engines appeared to be running normally, no smoke, fire or sounds of missing or backfiring." By this time, they were at 9,000-9500 feet and had been in the air about 20 minutes though the NTSB has calculated that it was nearly twice the amount of time necessary for the aircraft to have achieved 15,000 feet, had altitude been the goal rather than sightseeing. This altitude also made even a single engine failure nearly impossible to recover from; the altitude flown was reckless no matter how you look at it.

Another pilot familiar with the Loveland Pass area observed the aircraft as he was driving eastward on US Highway 6 (Interstate 70, which has largely replaced the function of both Highway 40 and 6, was not yet complete through this area) about two miles east of Dry Gulch. He stated, "Thinking it must be in trouble, I stopped the car to get out and look and listen. My initial and firm feeling was that the plane was in serious trouble as it was below the level of the mountains on either side that form the valley, and I didn't see how it could possibly turn around. Also, it was in nose high attitude and flying at a low rate of speed, obviously straining to gain altitude, but barely keeping up with the rise of terrain.

The aircraft, which was at approximately 11,000 feet, was entering an area where it either had to rapidly clear 12,500 feet (or more) or turn back towards Denver. Despite the accurate charts he had just purchased in Denver, Skipper seemed unaware that he was flying into a "box" canyon. Had he been at a safer altitude to begin with, he might have seen the Continental Divide ahead, but as they entered the area near Loveland Pass, his view was blocked by Mt. Sniktau (at 13,234 feet).

At this point, the fate of the aircraft was sealed. The plane could neither climb to the required altitude, or turn sharp enough to come back. First Officer Skipper evidently recognized the danger for the first time as well. He made a sharp right turn across Highway 6 in an attempt to escape the rising terrain via Dry Gulch, but Captain Crocker quickly realized this wasn't going to work either and took control of the aircraft.

Survivor David Lewis, who knew something was wrong as the plane banked to the left, looked to his friend, Don Christian. "He just turned around and he had this expression on his face that I had never seen before. I can't say it was fright, but I do know it was concern," said Lewis. "He just looked at me like a brother would. I'm sure I was the last person he ever saw."

The steep left bank Crocker put the plane in was a desperate measure to avoid the rapidly rising terrain of the valley, but it also stalled the aircraft into the mountain; they simply did not have enough space left for any maneuver.

The last bit of flying captain Crocker did before his death probably saved lives and, without the ensuing explosion, might have saved everyone. Crocker, perhaps resigned to the fact that the aircraft was not going to make it, leveled the plane out relative to the mountain. The impact almost certainly would have been more violent without this last adjustment.

The stalled airliner struck trees at approximately 10,800 feet up the side of Mount Trelease. Pieces of the aircraft broke off as it sliced through the dense forest for another 350 feet. Trees in that area were as tall as 50 feet.

Ten passengers and First Officer Skipper, who was occupying the left pilot seat, survived the initial impact and fire. One had been seated in row 4, and was the only person between rows 1 and 6 to survive. Two survived from row 7 with two more in row 8 and three in row 9. Survivor Richard Stephens was standing in the doorway to the cockpit and jumped into the forward baggage compartment when he recognized that a crash was imminent.

All but one of the surviving passengers had their seatbelts unfastened. They were thrown forward and to the left at impact. All who escaped from the aircraft did so through a hole in the left side of the fuselage or a hole in the right side of the cockpit.

"The impact ripped the side of the plane wide open and then I heard an explosion. It was burning pretty bad." Said Glenn Kostal, who was in the back of the plane talking to teammates when it crashed.

Tackle Jack Vetter, who was trapped with teammates Randy Kiesau and Don Christian near where Bob Renner had just escaped from, yelled to his best friend, "Bobby, I'm burning. Get out of here." Kiesau, who had switched planes in Denver, didn't say anything, "But he shook his head like he was telling me not to help him."

One of many people on the ground who were already moving towards the aircraft was my Dad, who was surveying the approaches to the Eisenhower tunnel for the newest stretch of I-70 that was being built. He and his crew started to hike up the mountain, and were met by two guys working for the contractor H.E. Lowdermilk, that was the contractor building that stretch of the Intersatate. This was one of the many fortunate events for the people who had crashed, because these two guys were heading up the mountain with a pair of Cat D-9 blades. Access to that area was going to be extreemely tough, and probably take hours. It was fortunate that the crash occured right above the construction, and several guys climbed aboard the Cats which made a road to the crash site.

Rescuers first arriving at the scene stated that the fuselage was relatively intact, with a small hole on the right side and a large hole on the left. One rescuer related that he observed fire in the forward baggage compartment area. He was about to step inside the fuselage to assist any survivors when an explosion occurred, and flames traveled aft into the cabin.

There were several survivors of the original impact, and some trapped in the plane. The fire that started when the plane hit was fairly small, but the plane was carrying several Oxygen canisters for the football team. This was disastrous, as the fire reached the O2 canisters they started exploding. Dad and the rest of the people attempting to rescue the remaining people could only fall back and watch the explosions.

Ken Abrahamson and his coworker from Loveland Ski Area had received first aid training and were among the first on the scene after the crash. The entire fuselage eventually burned down to molten aluminum and the fire continued for nearly 24 hours. "The crash site was littered with baggage, shirts, playbooks, shoulder pads, athletic shoes, and football helmets," recalled Abrahamson.

By November 8, 1970, the NTSB had cast aside any mechanical problems as a cause and issued a preliminary statement suggesting pilot error was the sole cause of the crash. It was suggested that if the crew had realized the danger "less than one minute sooner," they would have had time to turn around and might not have crashed. The mountain on their right (Mount Sniktau) blocked their view of the bigger mountain (Mount Trelease) just ahead that they eventually crashed into. It was a mistake that no pilot should have made - not when he had newly purchased charts sitting in the cockpit which correctly showed the altitude and configuration of such obstacles.

Wichita State University created "Memorial '70" the day after the crash and a wreath is laid at the memorial in a ceremony each October 2nd. Survivor Dave Lewis attended the memorial service in 2005 for the first time. There is also a memorial about 50 feet from I-70 near the crash site. The team voted to play out the remainder of the season with mostly Freshmen playing all the positions.

Tragically, this was not the only planeload of college football players to crash in 1970. A month and a half later, all 75 aboard - including the Marshall University football team - died when their plane crashed. The 2006 movie We Are Marshall dramatized that event.

Dad never liked to talk about that crash, or what he saw that day. There weren't many things that he wouldn't talk about, but told me one day about how bad it was. He could hear the screams for a long time after that day.


  1. I remember that time very well. They set up a triage and morgue on the football field and Mom wouldn't let us go anywhere near there. Lots of distress and sadness from People in Idaho Springs and the families that came from all over to be with loved ones.

  2. I can't imagine what it must have been like for the survivors, much less the rescuers. What a horrible tragedy to haunt everyone. Thank you for the reminder that life is god!

  3. Wow, I didn't realize that happened here as it was way before I lived here.

    It's very interesting how many tragic events have a chain of bad choices or mistakes.

    Thanks for all the research and time spent on this story.

  4. what a story - and thanks for sharing it. no wonder your dad could not talk about it

  5. Wow! What a riveting story!

    It's amazing how a series of seemingly inconsequential errors can end up in a huge disaster.

    One of the things I learned about military veterans is that the ones who actually saw action don't like to talk about it. They saw things they wish they could forget.

  6. Anonymous10:13 AM

    Facinating story, SD. thanks for sharing.

  7. Thanks for linking to this story. Fascinating, and sad.... and so terrifying for those aboard.