In early October 1970, a twin-engine aircraft carrying forty people associated with the Wichita State University football team crashed into Mt. Bethel along Colorado’s Continental Divide, killing thirty-one passengers. The crash spurred the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to review and revise its regulations concerning air taxi services, and public pressure forced it to perform its inspection duties more diligently. Today, a memorial below the crash site on Interstate 70 commemorates the tragedy, and the FAA has gone on to pass stricter regulations with each passing year.
On Friday, October 2, 1970, a pair of Martin 404 twin-engine aircraft took off from Wichita, Kansas, carrying the Wichita State University (WSU) football team, coaches, and VIP supporters. They were bound for Logan, Utah, to play the Utah State University Aggies the following day. Both airplanes refueled at Denver’s Stapleton Airport. One of the planes proceeded to Utah via southern Wyoming, avoiding Colorado’s high mountain wall. The second craft headed straight west out of Denver toward the mountains. Pilot Danny Crocker and copilot Ronald Skipper did not file a flight plan.
The WSU Shockers football squad hoped to win its first game of the season at Utah after losing its first three. This was also the first time the team would play that far west. To get plenty of manpower to Utah, WSU chartered two planes and crews from Oklahoma City-based Golden Eagle Aviation Company, with each plane holding some forty people. The plane now bound for the high mountains of the Continental Divide carried WSU athletic director Bert Katzenmeyer, head coach Ben Wilson, Kansas state legislator Carl Fahrbach, the university’s admissions director, several of their wives, ticket manager Floyd Farmer, and twenty-two starting players. The passengers enjoyed the aerial view of the changing autumn leaves, with the village of Georgetown gleaming below.
Ahead stood the Continental Divide, nearly 13,000 feet above sea level. To its passengers, the plane seemed quite low, and some of them heard the pilot announce that it was taking the “scenic route” through the Rocky Mountains. The plane followed the new Interstate 70, where a construction crew worked below on the Straight Creek (Eisenhower) Tunnel. Copilot Skipper had been gaining altitude since departure from Denver, but it was quickly becoming apparent that the plane was too low to proceed over the lofty granite barrier looming ahead. Below on the interstate, California tourists Mr. and Mrs. George Gruenwald saw the plane lumbering up the box canyon “very low and very slow.” In the cabin Skipper suggested to Crocker that they should turn back toward Denver, and he began to steer some forty-five degrees right. But Crocker seized the controls and began a left turn. At 1:14 pm, highway workers saw the plane dip and strike the side of Mt. Bethel, exploding twice on the slope.
Linebacker Glen Kostal lost consciousness for a few seconds on impact. Awakening disoriented, he later recalled “being under a lot of people and wreckage. I looked up and there was a huge hole. I didn’t know whether it was in the top or what, but I think I climbed out of the plane.” Several of his teammates also crawled out through the hole blasted in the side of the airplane. Rick Stephens, sitting toward the front, was ejected. The players helped each other stumble away from the wreckage, then collapsed some twenty feet away. Although suffering from several head injuries, Copilot Skipper dragged survivors further away from the burning aircraft. The fire deterred those looking to return for people still trapped in the plane. Mike Bruce, as the least injured, headed down the mountainside in search of help.
Tunnel workers clambered up the hill and met Bruce, who told them to head to the crash site while he went for help. He met a woman who helped him down to a construction site office, where she bandaged his leg. Construction worker Jerry Meyer told the press, “we passed seven of the survivors coming down the hill. Some of them had their clothes burned off and were hurt and were just running like deer.” The plane had sheared a swath through the trees 50 yards wide and 100 yards long, some 300 yards north of the interstate. To prevent the fire from spreading, the construction crew cut down trees and foliage surrounding the crash site. Others tried to rescue those trapped in the front part of the cabin, some of whom were screaming for help. But the fire still prevented rescuers from getting inside. The mangled wings smoldered, and unidentifiable chunks of metal, along with football helmets and pads, lay scattered across the mountainside.
Twelve survivors staggered or were carried to the highway, where ambulances rushed them to Idaho Springs. Dr. Morgan Durham, the only physician in town at the time, administered rudimentary treatment before transferring eleven of the twelve survivors to Denver hospitals. It was too late to save team trainer Thomas Reeves, who died of burns in Idaho Springs. Army helicopters landed on the highway below the crash site, waiting to transport other survivors. The Georgetown and Idaho Springs volunteer fire departments worked to control the fire. There was no water nearby, so they smothered flames with extinguishers and dirt, but new fires started when oxygen bottles in the cabin exploded. The blazes finally died out several hours later. Under a pine tree searchers found a body hurled from the plane, later identified to be Crocker, the twenty-seven-year-old pilot.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) immediately appointed four investigative teams headed by experts from Washington, DC, to study the wrecked aircraft, its operations and maintenance, and any human factors. Charles O. Miller, director of the Bureau of Aviation Safety, arrived at the scene Saturday, along with FAA representatives. By late afternoon, nineteen bodies had been taken to a temporary morgue in Idaho Springs for identification. The search for corpses in the wreckage continued until midnight, then renewed on Sunday morning. The FAA impounded the other Martin 404 that had successfully landed in Utah for a safety inspection. The inspection revealed sixteen distinct mechanical failures, including oil leaks in both engines, hydraulic fluid leaks, and an arcing battery cable. The FAA immediately imposed a $50,000 fine on the Jack Richards Aircraft Company, the plane’s manufacturer, and rescinded the inspection certificate of the mechanic who had deemed the plane airworthy.
Public hearings began October 21 to determine the cause of the tragedy. Ronald Skipper, copilot of the downed plane and president of Jack Richards Aircraft Company, testified that he did not know why Crocker grabbed the controls from him or why the engines began vibrating immediately before the crash. Investigators interrogated him for hours about details of contractual arrangements. To most questions, he replied “I don’t recall.” Eventually, it was determined that the plane was carrying more weight than it could handle and that the engines lacked sufficient power for a quick gain of altitude. Once Crocker flew into the dead-end canyon, there was insufficient distance or engine power to clear the Continental Divide, which measured 12,705 feet at Mt. Bethel. Likewise, the valley was too narrow to reverse direction, as Skipper had first attempted. The plane’s sudden bank to the left, and then immediately to the right, decreased its velocity to the point of a stall. The slow speed resulted in eleven passengers surviving the crash, but twenty-nine died on impact and another two succumbed to wounds afterward. The NTSB determined the cause of the crash to be Crocker and Skipper’s insufficient and improper flight planning, as well as their lack of understanding of the aircraft’s abilities.
The first lawsuit was filed five days after the crash. Twenty-three others would follow shortly, most directed against Golden Eagle Aviation and the Jack Richards Aircraft Company. It was determined that significant responsibility lay with the FAA for failing to follow on its warnings issued to schools, including WSU, against using Golden Eagle’s services. Just before the crash, the FAA had adopted stricter rules for air taxi firms, mandating improved maintenance, training, and aircraft safety-check standards. Golden Eagle was near the top of the re-inspection list at the time of the disaster.
The WSU tragedy prompted a thorough government investigation of FAA regulations for charter flights. In 1977 WSU was found liable for not carrying adequate insurance on the passengers. Consequently, lawsuits were filed against WSU and its intercollegiate athletics association. Suits were also pending in federal court on grounds that the FAA erroneously certified the plane as airworthy. Eventually, the NCAA paid insurance benefits totaling $25,000 to the families of each student and coach killed, and in 1978 the state of Kansas offered $1 million to settle the remaining suits. In the late 1980s a marker engraved with the victims’ names was built beside Interstate 70 beneath the crash site. Today, wreckage from the crash remains on the slope of Mt. Bethel.
Adapted from Ariana Harner, “‘Scenic Route Through the Rockies’: The Wichita State University Tragedy,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 18, no. 1 (1998).