This story originally appeared in The Eagle on Sept. 30, 1990.
SILVER PLUME, Colo. – Fall days in the mountains don’t come much better than the one that fell on north-central Colorado on Oct. 2, 1970.
The weather that Friday afternoon was almost perfect: clear, sunny and about 60 degrees with gentle winds blowing up Clear Creek Canyon.
“It was just a beautiful day,” recalls Buff Rutherford, a Georgetown resident who was working at nearby Loveland Ski Area. “And you know, I’ve always made it a point to remember that day. And every year since, the second of October has almost always been a beautiful day.”
Twenty years ago Tuesday, the tide of Colorado’s summer tourists had slowed and the rush of winter’s skiers had not yet begun. Life was carrying on in its quiet way in Georgetown, Silver Plume and other small towns along the valley floor.
But shortly before 1 p.m. the locals knew that something was not quite right.
“You get used to sounds in the valley,” Buff’s wife, Mary Lou, said this summer. “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.”
She was right.
The plane Mary Lou Rutherford was concerned about was a 40-passenger Martin 404 carrying Wichita State football players, athletic department officials and boosters on their way to Logan, Utah, for a Saturday game against Utah State. Moments after she saw the plane go over Georgetown, it crashed into the side of Mount Trelease, about 12 miles up the canyon. The accident killed 31 people and left nine survivors. A second WSU plane did not take the route up Clear Creek Canyon and landed safely in Logan.
“I’m at the ski area and I get this call from Mary Lou,” Buff Rutherford said. “She asked me if I’d heard anything about a plane crash and I said, ‘No, why?’
“She said, ‘Because a guy just went by here so low, there’s no way he’ll get out.’ . . . Sure enough, about five minutes later, I go outside and we can see the smoke coming off the mountain. We knew right away it was that plane that crashed.”
When members of the National Transportation Safety Board heard testimony regarding the crash, they determined that the observations of Mary Lou Rutherford and several other witnesses in the valley were exactly right. The plane, the board said, had no business being where it was that afternoon.
Specifically, the NTSB report said the accident happened because the pilots 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 that was too narrow to safely 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.
But the route taken up Clear Creek Canyon and the lack of planning that went into it were named as the primary causes of the accident.
That route, which deviated from the original flight plan, was primarily the idea of copilot Ronald Skipper, who remained at the controls until the last few seconds of the flight. In the NTSB report and in newspaper interviews with survivors at the time, Skipper was said to have told the WSU passengers that the flight would take a “scenic route” from Denver to Logan. Skipper later said he was only flying the most direct route.
The original flight plan called for the two planes carrying the WSU football team to fly north out of Denver to Laramie, Wyo., in order to gain altitude before going west over the Rockies. But while the planes were being refueled at Denver’s Stapleton Airport, the report said, Skipper went inside to buy aeronautical charts for the mountain route he was considering. Told of Skipper’s planned route through the mountains, the crew of the other WSU plane elected to follow the original flight plan.
The report says that Skipper and 27-year-old pilot Danny Crocker took almost no time to study the recently purchased charts. If they had, it would have been obvious that they would have needed to reach an altitude of at least 12,000 feet to clear the Continental Divide at the end of the valley they intended to follow. Instead, the report says, Skipper was flying the plane at reduced power at about 11,000 feet when he and Crocker first realized they had flown into a box canyon.
For the pilots, that realization came about 25 to 30 minutes after leaving Denver when they had reached a point in the canyon known as Dry Gulch. But almost no one else on the plane ever knew anything was going wrong until the very end.
“They were serving box lunches on the plane and we were all laughing and talking about the mountains,” crash survivor Mike Bruce said recently. “No one realized what was going on.”
Glenn Kostal, another survivor, said there never was a sense of panic.
“We just assumed that’s the way it was when you fly in the mountains,” Kostal said. “We were even joking about being so close to the ground, saying things like, ‘Look, you can see the rabbits down there.’”
Once Skipper knew he was in a box canyon he tried to turn around, a move he thought could be safely executed. He made a bank turn to the right, trying to swing wide in order to turn around. As he was rolling out of this turn, Skipper testified that Crocker said, “I’ve got the airplane” and began a sharp left turn. Skipper said he then felt a vibration which other survivors also noted and Crocker put the nose down and the plane crashed into the side of the mountain.
The NTSB determined that Crocker had not understood what Skipper was doing and took over the controls to try to avoid hitting Mount Trelease. The steep left turn caused the vibration and resulted in the airplane stalling, which sent it into the trees.
But the report also indicated that the question of who was at the controls at the time of impact was moot. The pilots, the report said, had reached a point of no return.
Experts testified that Skipper had flown so far into the canyon that a 180-degree turn could not have been safely executed because the opening between the canyon walls was too narrow. They also said he did not have enough distance before the end of the canyon for the plane flying more than 5,000 pounds overweight to gain the altitude it needed to clear the ridge ahead.
’’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,” the NTSB report said. “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.”
Crocker was killed in the crash, but Skipper lived. He denied he was at fault at the time and still does, claiming that the plane crashed after the right engine failed.
Most of the survivors’ memories of the events immediately following the impact are fuzzy at best. One who had walked to the front of the cabin was thrown from the plane and only remembers waking up outside. The others quickly climbed out through one of two holes in the side of the plane, although one survivor said he stayed behind several moments trying to free three of his teammates. The hole just behind the right wing had a felled tree lying against the wing that made a crude exit ramp to the ground.
“When we climbed out of the plane, I could tell with one quick look that I was in about the best condition,” Bruce said. “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.”
There must have been some fire spreading through the cabin of the plane initially because several of the survivors suffered burns. But they had started their stumble down the mountainside by the time the plane’s nearly full fuel tanks exploded.
“It seems like we were about halfway down when we heard two explosions,” said survivor Randy Jackson. “That’s when the fire really started.”
Ron Kidder was installing a new lift at Loveland when he and fellow workers heard about the crash and saw the column of smoke coming off Mount Trelease. They headed for the crash site, but met most of the survivors coming down the mountain.
“It wasn’t like we really rescued anybody,” Kidder said. “We couldn’t even get close to the plane. The heat was pretty incredible.”
News of the accident quickly made it back to Wichita.
“We just couldn’t believe it,” said Dorothy Harmon, who was then the executive secretary in the athletic department and who often had flown on Shocker football trips. “We didn’t want to believe it.”
Neither did Bob Seaman. He was the team’s offensive coordinator and normally flew on the “Gold” plane with second-year coach Ben Wilson to talk strategy during the flight. But Wilson’s wife, Helen, had decided to accompany her husband on the trip and Seaman gave up his seat to her. It was the first road trip Helen Wilson had taken with her husband since they came to WSU in February 1969.
Just before the “Black” plane’s 4 p.m. landing in Logan, Seaman was called to the cockpit and told he had a phone call waiting at the airport. After landing, those on the second plane were told to wait while Seaman went to take the call.
When he came back, Seaman called roll and then said,”The other plane has gone down.”
The 22 players, five assistant coaches and six other passengers on the plane sat dazed as Seaman told them he knew no other details.
’’Taking roll was so hard, but we had to know who was where,” Seaman said two weeks ago. “We needed to know exactly who had made it to Logan. But we still had no idea what had gone wrong on the other plane.
’’We heard rumors that everyone died. Then we heard no one died. We really did not know what was going on back there in the mountains.”
Kidder is still ski patrol director at Loveland and he still clearly remembers Oct. 2, 1970. Like most people in the valley, he remembers it as a day that seemed nearly perfect until the WSU plane went down.
“There just wasn’t a cloud in the sky that day,” he said. “It was a beautiful fall day. You sure didn’t expect anything horrible like that to happen on such a great day.”