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Continued: Happy anniversary: Lakers survive crash

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

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."

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