Happy anniversary: Lakers survive crash

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 18, 2010 - 11:58 PM

A half-century ago, the Minneapolis Lakers narrowly averted a disaster when their pilots battled a raging blizzard and frozen instruments to make a desperate impromptu landing in an Iowa cornfield. Today, the tiny town of Carroll, Iowa, is celebrating that effort.

hide

The DC-3 landed in a snow-covered cornfield with the Minneapolis Lakers onboard in 1960. No one was injured, and days later the pilots flew the plane out of the very same cornfield.

He awoke Sunday morning at his Woodbury home, collected his overnight bag and then, as all flyers habitually do, checked the weather forecast.

Then Harold Gifford, 86, once again charted his course and set out for little Carroll, Iowa, 50 years since he last visited.

This time, it's his intended destination. This time, he expects to arrive Monday welcomed in splendid sunshine.

"This time, I'm going by car," he said.

Fifty years ago, Gifford copiloted an ancient chartered aircraft carrying home the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team in a storm from a game in St. Louis.

Until that night, that Lakers team considered itself anything but a winner.

Six seasons after legendary big man George Mikan led the franchise to the last of four NBA titles, these Lakers were on their way to a 25-50 regular season.

They also were on their way out of town, bound with young star Elgin Baylor for a franchise move to lovely Los Angeles that very next summer.

That day began like so many others -- with a loss, to the St. Louis Hawks -- and ended with a night unlike any other for 22 people aboard.

Blinded by an electrical failure and a raging blizzard, their chartered plane flew high, frozen and by the stars and the moon for nearly five hours before it made a forced, off-course, fabulous landing into an Iowa cornfield.

Cornfields were apparently very dangerous places back then. Eleven months earlier, musician Buddy Holly had died when his small plane crashed into a cornfield 100 miles to the northeast. The Lakers walked away from their plane unscratched on a night when their unexpected arrival was met by hatchet-carrying firemen and the town's mortician.

"Fifty years later," said Hot Rod Hundley, who lived on that night to broadcast NBA games for more than 40 years, "and I could tell you now where everybody was seated on that plane."

An approaching storm

Hundley was a 25-year-old guard from West Virginia on a Lakers team that was battling Cincinnati for last place the Sunday afternoon it faced two-time league MVP Bob Pettit and the mighty Hawks before some 7,000 boisterous fans at Kiel Auditorium.

They lost 135-119, their fourth consecutive defeat. Nine of the team's 10 players -- rookie forward Rudy LaRusso was back in Minnesota, too ill to travel -- showered, dressed and squeezed themselves into three taxis for the ride to the airport as night fell.

Sleet fell as well as the storm approached.

Nineteen members of the Lakers' traveling party -- including wives, sons and a daughter of team personnel -- gathered at an airport gate to hear interim coach Jim Pollard, a forward on the franchise's championship teams, announce the flight would be delayed while the flight's three pilots considered the forecasts and discussed whether the weather was fit for flying.

"Gate 13," center Jim Krebs wrote in a 1969 Sports Illustrated account of that night. "When you lose as often as we did, you get over being superstitious."

The team traveled in a 1930s DC-3 -- a two-propeller plane with the speed and range that had revolutionized air travel nearly three decades earlier -- purchased by cost-conscious owner Bob Short. Outdated for commercial air travel, it belched smoke from its exhaust and had recently had a generator repaired and approved.

Krebs, a 24-year-old former SMU star who'd had a premonition he would not live to see his 34th birthday, told teammates they shouldn't fly that night.

Delayed more than two hours, the plane finally lifted off about 8:30, headed for home.

Players pulled out a card table made by Pollard's wife and prepared for a game of hearts as the plane climbed out of St. Louis. Soon, the cabin lights flickered, dimmed, then went dark.

"I don't even think we got the cards shuffled," guard Dick Garmaker said the other day from his Tulsa, Okla., home.

The lights died. The heat went out. So, too, did the plane's instruments: radio, fuel gauge, even a compass eventually, everything but a vacuum-driven artificial horizon indicator.

Then they ran out of hot coffee.

Flying on

Flying blind, the pilots considered it too dangerous to return to the busy St. Louis airport. Anticipating clearer weather to the north, they set aim for Minneapolis and climbed above the clouds, fixing the North Star in their windscreen as their navigational guide.

The storm intensified. The clouds billowed. The nonpressurized plane climbed to 17,000 feet -- far beyond the normal 10,000-foot air lanes -- to avoid the bad weather and other planes.

The temperature inside the cabin plummeted well below freezing. The plane's floor and windows grew thick with frost. The only lights visible were the glow of cigarettes and a flashlight Gifford shined in the cockpit.

The passengers cloaked themselves with blankets, overcoats, newspapers in an unsuccessful attempt to stay warm. A few became ill because of turbulence and altitude, but all remained outwardly calm, if only because of the women and children aboard, as the plane rattled along.

"The hard part was being up there so long, knowing we were in serious trouble," said guard Bobby [Slick] Leonard, who still broadcasts Indiana Pacers games. "Hot Rod was huddled in a seat, scared to death. I remember him asking, 'Slick, you think we're going to die?' And I said, 'Hell, no. But if we do, we sure got a smell of the roses.' "

Through clouds puffed like cotton candy, the pilots saw a glow they assumed was Des Moines. At one point, Baylor collected his coat for a cushion, went to the plane's rear and lay down, telling teammates that if he was going to go, at least he would do so comfortably.

"There was a lot of praying and bargaining with God going on," Baylor remembers now.

Oh! Carroll

Concerned about accumulating ice and diminishing fuel, the pilots brought the plane down, descending from 17,000 feet to a only few hundred. Unable to see through a frosted windshield, the pilots donned goggles and stuck their faces out a small weather window, freezing their ears and cheeks.

After midnight, they located a highway and followed it, hoping to find a town and an airport. Turns out, that town was Carroll, a farming community of about 7,000 people 75 miles northwest of Des Moines.

They made a pass by the town's water tower, hoping to learn where they were. All they could see were the two "L's" -- Gifford now quips he thought it was hell -- and graffiti left by the 1959 senior class.

They circled searching for an airport and then followed the highway north out of town, nearly hitting a grove of trees when they flew straight and Hwy. 71 turned hard left.

"I thought for sure we were going to hit the mountain," said Garmaker, a Florida land developer who retired to Oklahoma two decades ago.

The pilots decided to follow the highway south back to Carroll, where the little town's lights shone from residents awakened at 1 a.m. by the engines' roar. A young shoe salesman threw a jacket over his pajamas, grabbed his galoshes and told his wife he wasn't sure where he was headed in that blizzard, but he knew people were in trouble somewhere.

After nixing the highway and a lake, the pilots chose a cornfield -- unplowed during a wet autumn -- because the standing stalks gave them visual reference and, having grown up on farms themselves, they knew it'd be free of rocks and ditches.

"If we hadn't found that cornfield, we'd have found our destiny out there," Gifford said.

The stalks and the accumulating snow provided cushion. The plane landed about 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 18, 1960, and plowed to an astonishingly quick stop. Baylor the next day called it the "smoothest" landing you could imagine, but Hundley now compares the dissipation of energy to dropping a basketball and letting it bounce until it stops.

Garmaker remembers Hundley breaking the deadly silence by shouting, "I live to love again!" when everyone realized they were still alive.

"You would have thought we won the world championship," Hundley said.

Passengers joyously tumbled out into the snow, and players threw snowballs at each other and the pilots while they were led by Carroll residents a few hundred yards through the deep snow to waiting cars.

Pollard rode in the mortician's vehicle. He said before his death in 1993 that he didn't start shaking that night until he saw a stretcher in the back and realized he was in a hearse.

Whether fact or fiction, the undertaker purportedly said that night, "Thought I had some business tonight, boys."

Passengers were shuttled to a nearby motor inn, where they warmed themselves with a roaring fire, coffee, whiskey and their good fortune. One by one, players telephoned home, informing worried wives about their presence in an Iowa cornfield.

One wife reportedly told her spouse to call back when he was sober. Krebs later quoted his wife, Jane, as saying this: Where have you been? What? Carol who?

"Everything was back to normal," wrote Krebs, who died at age 29 when he was struck by a falling tree while trying to remove it from a neighbor's yard. "God had answered our prayers. We had broken our losing streak."

Then ... and now

Players rode a bus home to Minneapolis the next day. They drove past the cornfield, the plane still there gleaming in the sun, as they left town. A few days later, town residents watched as a bulldozer cleared a path and pilot Vern Ullman flew the plane away, stating he had put it there and would take it out.

Players contributed $50 each as a token of appreciation for the pilots. Soon thereafter at a home game, Short presented the pilots with a plaque wishing for eternal safe landings. The players rode that same plane on trips later that season.

"We know the officials are against us in the NBA, and the fans haven't been with us in attendance," Short said later the day the plane landed safely. "But now we know the Lord is trying to save us from dying."

The good people of Carroll this evening will remember that flight's 50th anniversary with a ceremony. A marker will be placed in the town's Veterans Memorial Park less than 100 yards from where the plane stopped.

Gifford climbed atop his family's Comfrey, Minn., barn when he was a boy to follow the flight of this newfangled thing called a plane. A military and corporate pilot for 50 years, he plans to charter a plane to fly over the site where he helped avoid this aviation truism: "If you run out of airspeed, altitude and ideas simultaneously, you've got a problem," he said.

Leonard, Baylor and Garmaker all said they would have liked to attend, if not for other commitments or health problems. You maybe could have convinced Hundley, too, if West Virginia wasn't retiring his college uniform number.

"I don't want to go back there," he said from his home in Phoenix. "I can understand the celebration. ... I went back to Iowa once for a golf tournament, but that was summer, though. The weather was perfect. I know all about the winter weather in Iowa. No, thank you."

  • WOLVES VS. PHILADELPHIA • 2:30 p.m. Monday • TargetCenter • No TV (1130-AM)

    50 YEARS AGO TODAY MINNEAPOLIS LAKERS PLANE CRASH

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Seattle
Milwaukee 115 FINAL
Orlando 100
New York 82 FINAL
Indiana 103
Denver 69 FINAL
Memphis 99
Chicago 118 FINAL
LA Lakers 123
Montreal 1 FINAL
NY Rangers 0
Winnipeg 2 FINAL
Philadelphia 5
Boston 5 FINAL
NY Islanders 2
Arizona 3 FINAL
Toronto 1
Dallas 6 FINAL
Ottawa 3
Detroit 1 FINAL
Tampa Bay 5
Columbus 2 FINAL
Florida 3
Nashville 4 FINAL(SO)
St. Louis 5
Minnesota 1 FINAL
Calgary 0
Buffalo 2 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Anaheim 3 FINAL
San Jose 6
DePaul 72 FINAL
Providence 83
Michigan State 71 FINAL
Rutgers 51
Boston Univ 67 FINAL
Army 71
Fla Atlantic 61 FINAL
Charlotte 86
Youngstown St 87 FINAL
Detroit 93
East Tenn St 55 FINAL
Furman 59
Saint Louis 60 FINAL
George Mason 68
USC Upstate 78 FINAL
Jacksonville 65
High Point 72 FINAL
Liberty 53
Central Conn St 55 FINAL
Long Island 67
Western Ky 56 FINAL
Louisiana Tech 69
Dayton 64 FINAL
Massachusetts 66
Chattanooga 72 FINAL
Mercer 75
Wofford 58 FINAL
UNC Greensboro 42
Maryland 56 FINAL
Ohio State 80
FIU 56 FINAL
Old Dominion 71
Fair-Dickinson 65 FINAL
Robert Morris 87
Mount St Marys 67 FINAL
St Francis-NY 73
Bryant 68 FINAL
St Francis-PA 75
Northern Ky 75 FINAL
Stetson 85
Coll of Charleston 70 FINAL
Towson 74
Western Carolina 85 FINAL
Va Military 70
Sacred Heart 64 FINAL
Wagner 75
Lipscomb 62 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 78
Kennesaw St 67 FINAL
North Florida 86
Appalachian St 46 FINAL
Ga Southern 83
Holy Cross 54 FINAL
Loyola-Maryland 64
Eastern Ill 51 FINAL
UT Martin 81
Jacksonville St 82 FINAL
Belmont 103
Connecticut 58 FINAL
Cincinnati 70
Rider 58 FINAL
Saint Peters 49
SIU Edwardsville 75 FINAL
SE Missouri St 61
Marshall 69 FINAL
Southern Miss 54
Tenn Tech 56 FINAL
Tennessee St 64
Middle Tennessee 58 FINAL
TX-San Antonio 69
Ill-Chicago 65 FINAL
Milwaukee 71
Weber State 67 FINAL
North Dakota 60
Denver 54 FINAL
North Dakota St 61
IUPU-Ft Wayne 66 FINAL
South Dakota 55
Louisiana 85 FINAL
South Alabama 89
Ark-Little Rock 75 FINAL
Arkansas State 65
Georgia State 88 FINAL
Texas-Arlington 74
ULM 58 FINAL
Troy 55
Portland 46 FINAL
Gonzaga 64
Kentucky 69 FINAL
Missouri 53
Eastern Ky 78 FINAL
Murray State 85
UAB 69 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 71
Idaho State 76 FINAL
Northern Colorado 79
UMKC 57 FINAL
Grand Canyon 78
Chicago State 62 FINAL
Utah Valley U 78
Colorado 98 FINAL
USC 94
Cal Poly 57 FINAL
UC Irvine 67
Hawaii 84 FINAL
CS-Northridge 73
Pepperdine 50 FINAL
Pacific 43
Santa Clara 64 FINAL
San Diego 69
Utah 59 FINAL
UCLA 69
UC Santa Barbara 64 FINAL
UC Davis 70
Montana 73 FINAL
Portland State 54
Montana State 59 FINAL
Sacramento St 75
Long Beach State 91 FINAL
Cal State Fullerton 85
Loyola Marymount 54 FINAL
St Marys-CA 68
San Francisco 74 FINAL
BYU 78
California 76 FINAL
Washington St 67
Louisiana 47 FINAL
South Alabama 57
Saint Josephs 51 FINAL
Saint Louis 52
Appalachian St 77 FINAL
Georgia Southern 74
Niagara 58 FINAL
Saint Peters 65
Old Dominion 80 FINAL
FIU 67
Southern Miss 65 FINAL
Marshall 67
Georgia State 45 FINAL
TX-Arlington 57
Ark-Little Rock 69 FINAL
Arkansas State 70
ULM 51 FINAL
Troy 90
Pittsburgh 45 FINAL
(17) Duke 62
(6) Tennessee 73 FINAL
(10) Kentucky 72
(24) Oklahoma 81 FINAL
(14) Texas 84
Nebraska Omaha 59 FINAL
IUPU-Ft Wayne 70
UC-Riverside 68 FINAL
CS-Northridge 56
Army 65 FINAL
Boston U 40
New Orleans 40 FINAL
Nicholls 56
Charlotte 68 FINAL
Florida Atlantic 71
Towson 54 FINAL
Delaware 72
Hofstra 66 FINAL
Northeastern 45
New Hampshire 56 FINAL
Maine 87
Albany 89 FINAL
Vermont 48
Hartford 60 FINAL
Stony Brook 58
UNC-Wilmington 62 FINAL
William & Mary 67
Clemson 62 FINAL
Wake Forest 64
Alabama 54 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 85
(23) Syracuse 58 FINAL
(8) Louisville 78
Missouri 68 FINAL
Florida 52
Iona 66 FINAL
Fairfield 77
Manhattan 38 FINAL
Marist 77
NC State 63 FINAL
Virginia 71
(4) Notre Dame 74 FINAL
Virginia Tech 50
(22) Rutgers 58 FINAL
Purdue 49
(5) Maryland 91 FINAL
Michigan 65
Milwaukee 58 FINAL
Cleveland State 67
Wright State 108 FINAL
Oakland 89
Jacksonville 64 FINAL
USC Upstate 66
North Florida 40 FINAL
Kennesaw St 46
Stetson 62 FINAL
Northern Ky 68
Loyola-Maryland 57 FINAL
Holy Cross 51
Lamar 87 FINAL
Sam Houston St 68
Fla Gulf Coast 71 FINAL
Lipscomb 49
Vanderbilt 44 FINAL
(18) Miss State 69
IUPUI 62 FINAL
Western Ill 73
Abilene Christian 53 FINAL
Houston Baptist 50
Incarnate Word 54 FINAL
TX A&M-CC 63
McNeese State 78 FINAL
SE Louisiana 57
Oral Roberts 46 FINAL
South Dakota St 71
Louisiana Tech 66 FINAL
Western Ky 82
TX-San Antonio 53 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 73
Texas-El Paso 52 FINAL
UAB 67
Auburn 47 FINAL
Arkansas 52
Grand Canyon 65 FINAL
UMKC 59
Illinois 57 FINAL
(15) Nebraska 59
(20) Iowa 102 FINAL
Northwestern 99
Utah Valley U 55 FINAL
Chicago State 60
Green Bay 67 FINAL
Valparaiso 52
Ole Miss 41 FINAL
LSU 70
Portland State 31 FINAL
Montana 72
Sacramento St 64 FINAL
Montana State 91
North Dakota 55 FINAL
Weber State 48
Ohio State 85 FINAL
Wisconsin 73
Northern Colorado 61 FINAL
Idaho State 70
BYU 68 FINAL
San Francisco 63
St Marys-CA 56 FINAL
Loyola Marymount 49
Pacific 63 FINAL
Pepperdine 59
Cal-Irvine 61 FINAL
UC Santa Barbara 58
San Diego 64 FINAL
Santa Clara 61
UC Davis 64 FINAL
Cal Poly 72
Long Beach St 64 FINAL
Hawaii 72
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Which of these teams is the most frustrating to watch right now?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close