Tuesday, November 10, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: California Polytechnic State University Football Team, October 29 1960


The Cal-Poly crash gets lost amidst the scope of the Marshall tragedy which occurred in Huntington in November 1970.  However, a decade before the Marshall tragedy, another college football team was in plane crash. Sixteen players, the student manager, and a team booster died in the crash. 
             The New York Times   reported the crash as the first known crash in the US involving a sporting team. It was the first major crash involving any sports team in the world since the 1958 crash of a British European Airways flight in Munich that killed 23, including eight members of the Manchester United football (soccer) club.  The consequence of the crash was a tremendous debate about air safety in the United States and a fundamental change in takeoff procedures to ensure that such an event would not happen again under the same circumstances.
Cal-Poly had played Bowling Green State University earlier that day, losing the intersectional meeting 50-6. 

            The plane was owned by Arctic-Pacific out of Oakland, California.  The pilot was Captain Bob Flemming with co-pilot captain Don Chescher.  The charter flight crashed at the western edge of the airport at 11:25 PM.

Subsequent investigation revealed a variety of unnecessary risk factors.  Fog had closed the airport four hours before the accident.  The control tower only had authority to deny landings, but could not stop any craft from taking off. The Lucas county sheriff’s office reported that the airport control tower called at 11:10 PM to report an airplane takeoff, and then called again at 11:15 to report a fiery crash.  It took emergency responders 20 minutes to get to the airport from Toledo. The fog was so thick that there were no witnesses to the crash.  It was only heard.

Assistant coach Shel Hardin observed that the tail on the C-46 “just seemed to drop and the plane fell off to the left.”  Head coach Leroy Hughes said “the left motor conked out. Then it [the plane] spun over.” James Fahey, a halfback, “We barely got off when the engines started sputtering . . . then the left engine gave out---thump! I ducked my head and saw flames shooting. The bottom went over the top, it flipped over.”

This crash led to swift governmental action.  It turned out that on October 24 the Civil Areonautics Board had ordered the fleet of C-46s be inspected to determine if wing bolts needed to be replaced.  That order arose not from the Toledo crash, but was already in place at the time of the crash in response to an earlier crash on October 15 in Utah. On October 31 1960 the FAA suspended the operating license of carrier Arctic-Pacific for “gross disregard for public safety and the regulations of the Federal Aviation Agency,” according to then-agency director E. R. Quesada.

On November 14, 1960, the FAA determined that the Toledo crash was a product of overloading a craft that was “not in an air-worthy condition.”

On November 11, US senator Mike Monroney (D-Okla.) announced that his aviation subcommittee would hold hearings in January 1961 in response to the Toledo tragedy. Specifically, he advocated for more tower control and stiffer penalties for disregarding tower directives. “The control tower operator did not have firm authority to hold the plane on the ground.  Under such circumstances [zero visibility] it might be best to give the control tower operator the right to override the pilot . . . . stiffer regulations might prevent many light plane crashes. Pilots would take fewer chances if they faced loss of their licenses for failing to take orders from the tower.”

On Thanksgiving Day, November 23, , LA County Supervisor Warren Dorn and Bob Hope provided a Mercy Bowl in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum between  Fresno State and Bowling Green State to raise a memorial fund for the survivors and bereaved families. The event raised about $200,000. As of 2006, memorial plaques for the crash can be found on campus at Mott Gym and the Mustang horse statue. A permanent memorial plaza opened with the new Alex G. Spanos Stadium. The memorial has 18 copper pillars, one for each of the team members who died in the crash. Each copper pillar rises to the height of the player honored, and is adorned with a plaque about that player's life. 

At the time of the crash, Bowling Green State had been the easternmost opposing school ever to play football against Cal Poly.It would be nine years before Cal Poly would play outside California and eighteen years before the school would send a team over the Rockies to play.

A survivor of the crash, Ted Tollner, went on to be head coach at San Diego State and USC.  Former NFL coach and sportscaster John Madden, an alumnus of Cal Poly (’58) knew many of the victims of the crash.  He prefers to travel by bus since the crash.

About the C-46: The C-46 Commando was a passenger plane developed by the Curtiss corporation.  Designed for airline use in 1940, it initially served as a military transport.  After World War II, most of the 3,000-plus C-46s ended up in cargo service as passenger carriers preferred the DC-3 and the C-47.  Some are still in cargo service in remote parts of the globe.  Since 1964 the NTSB has investigated 84 crashes involving C-46s, including a dozen fatal crashes.