This story originally appeared in The Eagle on Sept. 30, 1990.
Until the final seconds before the Wichita State football charter crashed, co-pilot Ronald Skipper was at the controls.
He was one of nine survivors in an accident that killed 31 people. He also was the person who federal officials said was most responsible for the crash. In federal hearings on the crash, Skipper denied he was at fault. He still does.
“I feel I did everything that I could have done in the situation,” Skipper said recently. “I feel badly that it happened, of course. I feel badly that we were even flying the team that day.
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“But I don’t feel badly about anything I did.”
Skipper, 34 at the time of the accident and president of the firm that provided the pilots for the flight, now lives in Cocoa, Fla. After a 16-year career flying cargo and passengers for TransAmerica Airlines, Skipper retired because of health problems.
He lives in a house built on stilts on the shores of Lake Poinsett and says,”only me and the alligators live out here in the swamp.” He says he is happy now and feels, in most respects, he has led a successful life.
But in the period immediately following the crash, Skipper says he lost everything he owned and was forced to move in with his parents in Florida. His Oklahoma City-based company, Golden Eagle Aviation, was shut down by the Federal Aviation Administration shortly after the crash and Skipper lost his pilot’s license for a little more than a year.
“It was a trauma in so many different ways,” Skipper said. “It took everything I’d ever made in my whole life, everything we had worked for. . . . Our feet were definitely held to the fire by the FAA.”
Following an FAA investigation and hearings conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, the NTSB placed the official blame for the crash on the pilots. Years of legal battles, however, never produced a single civil or criminal judgment against Skipper or his company.
Skipper is reluctant to answer specific questions now about the events immediately preceding the accident. He says 20 years of trying to block the incident from his mind would make it too easy to inadvertently contradict the testimony he gave shortly after the crash.
And he does seem to have successfully erased much of his memory of the event. At one point in an interview this month, Skipper could not remember the name of the pilot, Danny Crocker, who died in the crash. At another, he said he could not remember the name of one of the flight attendants, who also died, although he identified her as his girlfriend.
Regarding details of the crash, Skipper says that he stands by the statements he made then and that he still disagrees with the NTSB’s report.
In the report, the NTSB said the accident happened because Skipper and Crocker flew the plane into a box canyon at an altitude that would not allow it to clear the mountains at the other end. The report also said they had flown so far into the canyon that the plane was in an area where it was too narrow to turn around.
The report listed other “significant factors” in the crash, including the overloaded condition of the plane and a lack of understanding on the part of the crew of the airplane’s capabilities and limitations.
Crocker was designated as the pilot in command on the flight because he had a rating to fly that particular plane and Skipper did not. But as president of the company that provided the pilots, Skipper actually was Crocker’s boss.
The report says Skipper also admitted to making the decision to take the mountain route and that he was seated in the pilot’s seat on the left-hand side of the cockpit at the time of the accident. Skipper also did not dispute that he was in control of the plane until the very last seconds before the crash.
Experts who examined the engines in Denver after the crash testified that they appeared to be working normally at the time the plane hit the mountain.
But Skipper maintains the plane crashed because the right engine caught on fire and failed. He says Crocker saw the engine on fire before the crash and that other witnesses on the ground did as well.
The NTSB report says most ground witnesses testified the engines appeared to be operating normally. It does note, however, that some witnesses reported a “small amount of black smoke coming from the right engine.” The report said that if there was smoke, it might have been caused by the “rich” mixture of fuel the plane was using and would not have caused the accident.
After detailed examinations of the engines and propellers in Denver, the NTSB said,”There was no evidence in either engine to indicate that the engines were not capable of producing power up to the point of impact.”
Skipper said officials from Golden Eagle were not allowed to examine the engines.
“It became clear very early in the aftermath what was going to happen,” Skipper said. “Someone needed to be blamed, so they blamed pilot error. And there was very little that could be done about it by us.
“It’s hard to fight the full might of the United States government.”
Skipper not only disagreed with the findings of the NTSB report, he also was unhappy with the way the hearings were conducted.
They began Oct. 21, less than two weeks after Skipper was released from the hospital. They were held in the auditorium at the Duerksen Fine Arts Center on the WSU campus in front of hundreds of people and were carried live on Channel 12. Survivors were rolled onstage to testify from their hospital beds.
Skipper said that before the crash, the FAA was trying to pass legislation to regulate more closely large charter flights and used the accident to further its political goals. The legislation eventually passed.
“It was a kangaroo court, designed to capture the imagination of the public, which it did,” Skipper said. “It was never intended for the bottom-line truth to come out. We were scapegoats.”
Skipper’s pilot’s license was pulled by the FAA but reinstated after he passed examinations about a year after the crash. He and the two other partners who had formed Golden Eagle Aviation were all pilots who had been furloughed from the same company, Saturn Airways. In 1972, Skipper was recalled by that airline, which was purchased by TransAmerica.
For the next 16 years, Skipper flew for TransAmerica, flying mainly to Europe, Singapore, Hong Kong. and Bangkok, Thailand. He said he flew 300-passenger DC-8s and spent the last three years of his tenure flying Boeing 747s worldwide.
In January 1988, Skipper was forced to retire when his FAA medical certificate was not renewed because tests showed he had suffered a heart attack. Skipper said he did not know about the damage to his heart until it showed up in the routine EKG tests required for the certificate’s renewal.
He never married; he will turn 55 in November. Though he can no longer fly commercially or for pleasure, Skipper says he is fairly content. He has lived a full life, traveled to far-off lands and now is working on becoming a writer.
“To the extent that I grew up and did what I had set out to do as a child, I’ve been a success,” Skipper said. “And I’ve enjoyed every second of it.”
He describes the crash of the plane carrying the WSU football team as a “dreadful thing,” pointing out that he had become close to several players on the team and several members of the athletic department who died. But he does not accept responsibility for the accident and says it is not something that weighs heavily on his mind.
“It’s just not something that I think about all the time,” Skipper said. “I have never minded talking about it. But it’s not something I think about very much.
“I have never had a bad dream or a bad night since the crash.”