The Story of Kansas

March 18, 2012

81 years since Kansas plane crash killed Knute Rockne

It’s been 81 years since the plane crash – nearly twice as many years as Knute Rockne was alive.

Editor's note: There will be no events on April 2. A previous version of this story included incorrect information.

It’s been 81 years since the plane crash – nearly twice as many years as Knute Rockne was alive.

And still, people come to a lonely hillside in the Flint Hills where the famed Notre Dame football coach’s plane went down.

“It is on my Kansas bucket list,” said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation near Inman, which helps promote rural culture.

“When you go into the Flint Hills and you think about Knute Rockne’s soul being there – and that you can stand there, and be there, it is a thrill.”

It is also about paying homage.

“I think there is a real tragedy in the sense of the celebrity,” said Thomas Averill, a Kansas historian and a professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka. “One aspect is that it has to do with Kansas and our aviation history. Back 81 years ago, Kansas and the airline industry were synonymous. It was a double whammy – losing a famous person in a plane crash, and losing him in a plane crash in Kansas was doubly sad.

“He was one of those people who defined and helped create the sports culture we now live in, just like Buddy Holly did with rock ’n’ roll.”

The crash happened shortly after 10:37 a.m. on March 31, 1931. After visiting his two sons in Kansas City, Mo., Rockne boarded Transcontinental-Western’s Flight 599 to Los Angeles.

Rockne had a fondness for Wichita and Kansas. His good friend and mentor, Jess Harper – a former Notre Dame athletic director who hired Rockne – lived in Wichita. Rockne also had taught a coaching clinic at the University of Wichita in 1929.

He was also friends with Forrest "Phog" Allen of the University of Kansas and Kansas State University’s Charles Bachman.

Also killed in the crash was John Happer, who was taking Rockne to Wichita and on to California. He was a comptroller for Great Western Sports Goods, which became Wilson’s Sporting Goods.

The plane crashed upside down into the rolling grassland. The tail was sticking almost straight up. Mail bags were strewn across the prairie and about three-eighths of a mile from the body of the plane was the right wing. Most of the eight victims were thrown from the wreckage, almost in a straight row. Their were no survivors.

Rockne was 43 years old.

It was later determined that the weather that morning was foggy and that the pilot may have become disoriented as he headed for Wichita. Witnesses would tell officials the plane suddenly whipped up so short, it shuddered, and that may have been what tore the wing off.

By going to the actual site, “You are remembering the death of a person who would have given us so much more,” Averill said.

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