Understanding the 1970 Wichita State football plane crash
Two planes carrying Wichita State University football players, coaches, administrators and fans refueled on Oct. 2, 1970, in Denver. The team was headed to Logan, Utah, for a game the next day against Utah State.
The pilots of the “Gold” plane changed their flight plan, deciding to give their passengers a scenic view of the Rocky Mountains. But they could not pull the overweight plane, a Martin 404, out of a box canyon. It crashed around 1 p.m. about 40 miles west of Denver on Mount Trelease. The elevation of the site is 10,750 feet. The NTSB estimated the plane exceeded its takeoff weight limitation by around 5,165 pounds.
The crash site is about a 575-mile drive from Wichita and is above I-70 on the north side of the highway, sitting on public land in the Arapaho National Forest.
The pilots of the doomed aircraft were blamed for the accident by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB also cited the “overloaded condition” of the plane and a “virtual absence” of planning by the flight crew. The state of Kansas paid an out-of-court settlement of $1.56 million divided among the heirs of survivors and the eight players who survived, on the condition all lawsuits be dismissed.
Thirty-one people died as a result of the crash: 14 players, 14 WSU staff and boosters, and three crew members. Twenty-nine died at the scene. Trainer Tom Reeves and athlete John Taylor died later in hospitals after suffering burns. Eight players and the co-pilot survived.
Marvin Brown, 19, Solomon, sophomore tailback
Don Christian, 20, Duncan, Okla., junior defensive back
John Duren, 19, Oklahoma City, sophomore end
Ron Johnson, 21, Kansas City, Mo., senior safety
Randy Kiesau, 20, Clinton, Okla., junior defensive back
Mal Kimmel, 21, St. Genevieve, Mo., senior center
Carl Krueger, 19, Chicago, sophomore tackle
Steve Moore, 21, Derby, senior linebacker
Tom Owen, 20, Temple Terrace, Fla., junior running back
Gene Robinson, 21, Dayton, Ohio, junior end
Tom Shedden, 20, Oklahoma City, junior tackle
Richard Stines, 19, Kansas City, Kan., sophomore guard
John Taylor, 21, Sherman, Texas, senior cornerback
Jack Vetter, 21, McPherson, senior tackle
▪ Taylor died Oct. 28 in a San Antonio hospital.
WSU staff and boosters
Bert Katzenmeyer, 52, Wichita, athletic director
Marian Katzenmeyer, 52, Wichita, wife of athletic director
Ben Wilson, 44, Wichita, football coach
Helen Wilson, 44, Wichita, wife of coach
Tom Reeves, 31, Wichita, team trainer
Marty Harrison, 19, Argonia, team manager
Carl Fahrbach, 50, Wichita, dean of admissions
Floyd Farmer, 35, Wichita, ticket manager
Ray Coleman, 45, Wichita, chairman of Shocker Club
Maxine Coleman, 43, Wichita, wife of chairman
John Grooms, 42, Wichita, won membership drive
Etta Mae Grooms, 38, Wichita, won membership drive
State Rep. Ray King, 48, R-Hesston
Yvonne King, 41, Hesston, wife of state representative
▪ Reeves died Oct. 5 in a Wheat Ridge, Colo., hospital.
Dan Crocker, 27, Oklahoma City, pilot
Judy Dunn, 39, Oklahoma City, flight attendant
Judy Lane, 28, Oklahoma City, flight attendant
Co-pilot Ronald Skipper
The 1970 season
Sept. 12: Texas A&M 41, WSU 14
Sept. 19: Arkansas St. 53, WSU 14
Sept. 26: West Texas St. 43, WSU 0
Oct. 3: Utah State, cancelled
Oct. 10: Southern Illinois, cancelled
Oct. 24: Arkansas 62, WSU 0
Oct. 31: Cincinnati 35, WSU 5 (moved from Oct. 17)
Nov. 7: Tulsa 21, WSU 12
Nov. 14: Memphis St. 51, WSU 6
Nov. 21: North Texas St. 41, WSU 24
Nov. 28: Louisville 34, WSU 24
Wichita Eagle Team MVP: DT Don Pankratz
Leading rusher: Don Gilley, 290 yards
Leading passer: Rick Baehr, 43 of 121, 514 yards
Leading receiver: Bill Moore, 12 for 175 yards
Honorable mention All-Missouri Valley Conference: C Kelly Cook, RB Don Gilley, DT Don Pankratz, LB George Whitfield, LB Bruce Gerleman
Five scenes that describe the aftermath
▪ Utah State placed a memorial wreath at the 50-yard line at its football stadium.
▪ Wichita State wore black jerseys, normally reserved for home games, for all six remaining games.
▪ The Shockers voted 76-1 to continue the season against Arkansas in Little Rock. The Shockers took 46 players to the game, 39 of them freshmen and sophomores. The NCAA allowed WSU to play freshmen, who were ineligible at the time by NCAA rule. Orville Henry of the Arkansas Gazette wrote that WSU entered the stadium in a single-file line to a minute-long standing ovation from the crowd of 40,000.
▪ On Nov. 28, 1970, Levitt Arena hosted “A Night of Stars” benefit for the victims of the Wichita State and Marshall University plane crashes. ABC televised the event with Monty Hall as host. Bill Cosby, Kate Smith, Lou Rawls and Marilyn Maye performed and Ohio State coach Woody Hayes read a statement from president Richard Nixon.
▪ Some of the wreckage remains on the side of Mount Trelease and memorial on I-70 marks the area. The site is accessible after a short hike and friends and family members still visit. ‘’It’s almost like another memorial to them, with all of that still up there,” teammate Ed Plopa said. “Maybe they should leave it just the way it is.”
Five key figures after the crash
Coach Bob Seaman – Wichita State’s offensive coordinator took over as coach, a job he held until 1973, when athletic director Ted Bredehoft fired him.
President Clark Ahlberg and dean of students Jim Rhatigan – The university’s leaders dealt with the crush of notifications, funerals and memorial services. Ahlberg traveled to Colorado with the families to visit survivors and identify the dead. “Looking back on it, we probably expected the coaches to do way too much,” Rhatigan said. “Looking back on it, while we were admiring the strength of the character of the players who carried on, we did not see the pain underneath.”
Dorothy Harmon – She served as interim athletic director after the crash. Harmon, the first female member of the Shocker Sports Hall of Fame, worked as executive secretary, fieldhouse director, academic counselor and assistant to the athletic director. “Out of that great loss came a strength that was given to each survivor, to each member of the athletic administration,” she said.
Rev. Richard Taylor – Minister at University United Methodist Church, he knew many of the players, coaches and administrators on the plane. He conducted a memorial service and wrote “Homecoming Prayer,” which was read at the first home game after the crash.
“Homecomings are exciting times, Father, whether it be a homecoming with you when the game of life is over… or whether it be a grand homecoming with this tremendous crowd today at Wichita State University. We acknowledge you as a real and important part of both. We know you hear with us the thrill and excitement of the game. Cheers in this stadium have turned to tears and back again to cheers and all are a part of life.…”
Randy Jackson – One of the eight surviving players, Jackson led the Shockers in rushing in 1971 with 820 yards, then the second-highest total in program history, and eight touchdowns. He earned All-MVC honors as a senior and played three seasons in the NFL. A longtime P.E. teacher and coach at Robinson Middle School, he died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer.
Five past quotes from teammates
“Those that died – they wouldn’t have wanted us to quit. It wasn’t a great team to begin with. But it was a team that hung together.” –John Yeros
“The friendships and bonds forged have been a very important of all our lives. We’re still all so close, and we do so much of that in their memory. I think about them all the time.” – Bruce Gerleman
“I have just felt bad about those other kids dying and me living. I would be somewhere and someone would ask me where I went to school. I’d say Wichita State and they would say, ‘That’s the school that had the plane crash, wasn’t it?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, it sure was.’ But nothing else, because I didn’t want to talk about it.’’ – Dave Lewis
“In almost every conversation, when people ask you where you went to school, they remember the crash and ask about it. It’s just something you live with all the time. You really do.” – Mike Bruce
“I hate like hell to fly. The only time I ever have is in the (NFL). And that’s only because I had to.” – Randy Jackson
Five quotes that explained the crash
“You get used to sounds in the valley. And when I heard that airplane, I knew there was something different. So I went out back and here was this big plane flying up the canyon really low. It was bigger than most planes we get down here and flying a lot lower. I just knew he was going to be in trouble.” – Mary Lou Rutherford, witness
“We just assumed that’s the way it was when you fly in the mountains. We were even joking about being so close to the ground, saying things like, ‘Look, you can see the rabbits down there.’ ” – Wichita State player Glenn Kostal
“When we climbed out of the plane, I could tell with one quick look that I was in about the best condition. I headed down the mountain to get help and a pickup came and took me up to a construction site where we called for help.” – Wichita State player Mike Bruce
“If the crew had been concerned about the aircraft’s ability to clear the terrain ahead less than one minute sooner, when the aircraft was 1 1/2 to 2 miles east of Dry Gulch, a successful turnaround could have been executed. However, at that point on the flight path, the crew would have been unable to see that the valley ended at Loveland Pass, and thus they proceeded into an area from which an escape was not possible.” – NTSB report
“I feel I did everything that I could have done in the situation. I feel badly that it happened, of course. I feel badly that we were even flying the team that day. But I don’t feel badly about anything I did.” – co-pilot Ronald Skipper
How does Wichita State remember the victims?
▪ Each year, the university holds a ceremony on campus at the Memorial ’70 monument. This year’s is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday.
▪ People can donate to the ’70 Football Memorial Scholarship Fund at foundation.wichita.edu/give.
▪ The Thomas A. Reeves Memorial Scholarship honors the Wichita State trainer who died in the crash. Reeves, inducted in 1986 to the Shocker Sports Hall of Fame, is said to have helped several injured people after the crash. He died two days later.
▪ In 2008, Howard Johnson, father of victim Ron Johnson, dedicated a stage musical called “Waltzing in Heaven” to the 1970 team in memory of his son.
▪ Survivor Rick Stephens, a tackle on the 1970 team, has ridden his bicyle from Wichita to Colorado to raise money for the scholarship fund. “This is an opportunity to put the events in the public’s mind,” Stephens said in 2014. “The main thing is that people take a few minutes to remember. The unfortunate loss of 31 fine individuals deserves to be remembered.”
Q: What is the significance of the “Gold” and “Black” designations for the planes?
A: The “Gold” plane carried the starters, coach Ben Wilson and athletic director Bert Katzenmeyer. Radio voice Gus Grebe was supposed to ride on the Gold plane, but was late arriving and flew on the Black plane. Player Randy Kiesau flew from Wichita to Denver on the Black plane, then changed to the Gold plane. As a former starter, he asked to move to sit with his friends.
Q: How did the Black plane reach Utah safely?
A: The “Black” plane followed the original flight plan, north toward Laramie, Wyo., to gain altitude before crossing the Rockies. It landed in Logan.
Q: Why did Wichita State resume its season?
A: Nine days after the crash, the players voted 76-1 to start what became known as the “Second Season.” The players said returning to practice gave them a sense of comfort and allowed them to honor their teammates.
“It gave us a real release and a real outlet and a real focus,” safety Bruce Gerleman said. “And it was dedicated to all those guys who didn’t make it.”
Q: How is the Wichita State crash connected to Marshall University in West Virginia?
A: On Nov. 14, 1970, a plane carrying Marshall’s football team back crashed near the airport in Huntington, W.V., killing 75 people. The NTSB said rain and poor visibility contributed to the crash. The two schools shared in the proceeds from the “A Night of Stars” benefit at Levitt Arena.
Q: Did the crash contribute to Wichita State dropping football after the 1986 season?
A: Other factors — budget woes,losing records, low attendance and loss of conference affiliation — caused the demise of football. The Shockers went 6-5 in 1972 and didn’t post another winning season until going 8-3 in 1983. In 1986, president Warren Armstrong said the football program lost $839,000. The MVC dropped football to NCAA Division I-AA status in 1985, leaving WSU an independent in its final season.
Q: How can I learn more about the plane crash?
A: The Wichita Eagle archives many stories and pictures from its coverage at www.kansas.com/sports/college/wichita-state/.
▪ KPTS will show its 2009 documentary “Black & Gold: Remembering the WSU Plane Crash” at 8 p.m. Friday. It is also available at watch.kpts.org. KMUW, 89.1-FM, will broadcast “The Pieces that Remain: Remembering the WSU Plane Crash,” at 5 p.m. Friday.
Information and quotes from this compilation gathered from stories published by The Wichita Eagle.
The 1970 Wichita State University plane crash
Remembering the 31 people who died on Oct. 2, 1970 through the archives of The Wichita Eagle:
Those left behind mourned and built new lives | A beautiful fall day ... then an ominous sound | Pilot steadfast in denying fault: ‘Someone needed to be blamed’ | The years drive a wedge between survivors linked by tragedy |
Marvin Brown was Solomon’s favorite son | Daughter grew up without her ‘da-da’ | Complex connection for WSU survivors | Families never lose memories | Former Utah State player still feels linked to Shockers