Friday, December 11, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: The University of Evansville Basketball Team, December 13 1977


You must understand that the plane crash was more than just a horrible snuffing out of a large number of young lives. The university basketball team had great meaning for the whole Evansville community—the city even more than the school. When the Aces won the first of their five NCAA Division II titles in 1959, Evansville was in an economic and spiritual depression, and anybody will tell you that the city's resurgence began then. Soon, the social fabric of the town revolved about the Aces' schedule and fortunes.  Frank Deford, 1978

Evansville, Indiana, is a small, proud industrial river city with a troubled economic history.  Down the Ohio River from Louisville and Cincinnati, Evansville’s economic woes started with ongoing recession in the 1950s.  But there had always been one bright light – University of Evansville basketball. As Time Magazine would later recount, “The Purple Aces were the pride and passion of Evansville, Ind. Home games were often sold out. Season tickets to the best seats were so hard to come by that diehard fans fought over them in divorce settlements, and for good reason.” A division II powerhouse, Evansville had dominated men’s hoops in the division winning five national titles (1959, 1960, 1964, 1965, and 1971) in thirteen seasons from 1959 to 1971.  Legendary head coach Arad McCutchan coached Evansville from 1946-1977, winning 514 games and claiming fourteen Indiana State conference titles.
After the 1977 season, McCutchan retired and the Aces moved up to Division I. Evansville hired away rising star assistant coach Bobby Watson of from Oral Roberts University.  Watson in turn went out and recruited eight hot-shooting freshmen, and set about pumping up enthusiasm in the community and among boosters for the jump to Division I. As Time described it, “he revived an old mascot: a cartoon riverboat gambler holding a winning poker hand of four aces.”
Bobby Watson had been a very successful recruiter and assistant coach at Oral Roberts.  Described as “charismatic” and “hard charging” he set about creating a dynamic image for the team as it moved up to Division I play, including a full-court press with community leaders and long-time boosters to support that transition from McCutchan’s reign.

            Evansville opened at 1-3, and the Aces were scheduled to play Middle Tennessee State.  The team would engage a then-unusual air trip to the game.  Much of the Aces play for the previous three decades had been confined to opponents in Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. Moving up to division I meant moving up to national competition, and that meant flying. The flight, Indiana Air 216, was a charter operated by National Jet Service to Nashville where the Aces would take on Middle Tennessee State.
On the evening of December 13 1977, the chartered DC-3 took off from Dress Regional Airport, bound for Nashville.  Due to leave at 4:30 PM CST, the flight was delayed over two hours largely because equipment was late arriving from Indianapolis. The flight carried 26 passengers and five flight crew, including fourteen members of the University of Evansville basketball team.  The flight crashed on takeoff at 7:22 PM central standard time (CST):

At 1922:12 and 1922:18 the local controller, after noting what he described as an "abnormal" roar of engines, made two unsuccessful attempts to contact Air Indiana 216. He stated that he initiated the crash alarm after he saw the fireball. At 1922:24, one of the controllers shouted "Oh, he's crashed."

On the flight was new Evansville head coach Bobby Watson; players Kevin Kingston, John Ed Washington, Tony Winburn, Stephen Miller, Bryan Taylor, Keith Moon and freshmen Warren Alston, Ray Comandella, Mike Duff, Kraig Heckendorn, Michael Joyner, Barney Lewis, Greg Smith, and Mark Siegel, along with student managers, Jeff Bohnert, Tank Kirkpatrick and Mark Kniese. Among the flight crew were, respectively, Captain Ty Van Pham and co-captain Gaston Ruiz, flight attendant Pamela Smith. And the president and general manager of the Indianapolis-based carrier, James M. Stewart and Willard Hartford.  Also on board were local businessmen and Aces’ boosters Maury King and Charles Goad.
One eye-witness, Rick Notter, an aircraft worker at the airport, described the moment before the crash  to AP reporter Charles Roberts, saying he saw the DC-3 "disappear into the fog … about a minute and a half later I head his engines cutting out and he went down," Another witness, charter pilot Patrick Alvey, told Roberts that “We saw it go into the clouds. We heard a loud ‘pop.’ We heard an engine rev up, then we heard the crash and saw an explosion,” Avery and another man rushed to the scene of the crash, near railroad tracks north of a new subdivision called Melody Hills. What they found, as Alvey told the AP, was a total disaster. “The fuselage was intact, the left wing was ripped off … very many bodies were still in their seatbelts and many were strewn around. It was a mess -- just a total mess . . . We had four people alive. They were just strewn around. The wreckage was on fire. There was nothing we could do for the people inside of it.”
The Evansville athletic director, Jim Byers, lived in Melody Hills.  He had canceled plans to go to Nashville in order to interview a candidate for another coaching vacancy. Byers subsequently described that he was on campus working when the crash occurred, but that the trees the plane clipped on the way down were near his house.
According to the investigation of the National Transportation Safety Board, the cause of the crash was a weight imbalance caused by the improper loading of luggage, and also the failure of the crew to remove external safety locks. The crash took place in rainy, foggy conditions.
NTSB interviews indicated no initial trouble with the engines, thought there was concern about the attitude of the aircraft:

Two witnesses on the passenger terminal ramp stated that the DC-3 entered a nose-high, steep climbing left turn shortly after lift off. One witness estimated that the aircraft was in a 15° to 18° noseup attitude and said that he ‘didn't think he could make it, he was going to stall from the attitude of the airplane’ . . . Seconds later, the witness stated that the engine noise increased, it became ‘tremendous,’ then ceased; there was ‘total silence’ followed by a ‘thud--very dull.’

One of the residents of Melody Hills had a close view, as the plane very nearly crashed in his backyard:

[H]e saw a DC-3 approach from the southwest. It appeared to have either struck or just cleared the trees in his backyard. He said the aircraft had its landing lights on, and he saw the cabin lights. The plane was in a left bank, Two witnesses in the housing development east of the field saw had its nose up, and was trying to get over and away from the house and trees. He noted that the engines were making a strange noise, ‘like they were pulling against each other,’ and that the noise continued for about 10 secs to 15 secs; then, ‘it was as if the engines were turned off like a radio. Complete silence. I heard no crash or explosion.’

The NTSB was quick to absolve the flight crew in this incident. Within two days of the crash, they had largely ruled out both pilot error and the weather conditions, stating that “neither the weather nor pilot error appeared to have caused the crash of a chartered.” Stated the NTSB’s Phillip Hogue to the press, “We’re now concentrating on possible mechanical or machine error, but that doesn’t mean that is the cause . . . as far as we know, there was no pilot error, but that still must be determined.’” Media attention was directed by the NTSB to the remaining explanations:  “engine failure or improperly stored baggage that threw the plane out of balance.”
Subsequent investigation proved that the flight was not overweight.  It was near maximum acceptable weight, by just under 150 lbs.  Investigators still did not rule out weight, again instructing the press that “equally important is the distribution of the weight” because it “‘would give the pilot control problems if either his aft or forward center of gravity was off,’” Given the effort of Captain Pham to abort his takeoff, some problem had arisen, and center of gravity (c.a.g.) emerged as the likely culprit. Subsequent litigation focused on weight, weather, and competency. As the New York Times reported within two weeks of the crash, “Two damage suits have been filed in Federal court in Indianapolis as a result of the crash.  The parents of one basketball player charged that the chartered aircraft ‘was outrageously negligently maintained, serviced and operated and overloaded at takeoff in dense fog and rain.’”
The flight crew was new to the charter line, but experienced. Captain Ty Van Pham was a Vietnamese refugee who fled after the fall of Saigon.  He had over 9,000 hours of flying time.  Co-Captain Gaston Ruiz was also a refugee from communism – he fled Cuba in 1963 at the age of 21. Flight attendant Pamela Smith was just 24, with fifteen hours of flight experience.  None of this would matter, as it turned out (According to the historical record National Jet Service had 750,000 passenger miles without an accident and acted as a charter service for several Indiana universities.).
Both pilots had concerns about the weather raised to them by ground traffic control prior to departure. Pham and Ruiz were warned about possible wake turbulence in the about wake turbulence in the area by one of the controllers (“At 1919:54 the local controller cautioned Air Indiana 216 about wake turbulence from the departing DC-9 and issued began the takeoff roll”). Wake vortex turbulence are miniature cyclone-like disturbances that are created by aircraft on takeoff, not unlike boat wakes in the water.  Dress Regional Airport enjoyed substantial heavy-body jet traffic including DC-9s flying for major flag carriers. NTSB investigation subsequently rules out any wake vortex disturbance.
Pilots immediately detected some sort of problem after takeoff.  Pham’s last transmission to the tower was  “Standby,” followed by the crash of the craft after a banking left turn. It was the last known transmission from the flight.
The NTSB investigation generally ruled out maintenance or flight crew deficiencies, and also ruled out structural defect. It also ruled out wake vortexes through a systematic reconstruction of the airport’s operational time line.
            Suspicion finally fell on weight. The weight distribution on the flight load manifest was inaccurate; the actual center of gravity of the craft was aft of the optimum range, rendering the DC-3 tail-heavy. One operational failure was also identified – the external right aileron and rudder control locks were installed and this was “not discovered during the before-takeoff checklist and the control locks were in place when the aircraft crashed.” The final probable cause assessment of the NTSB was that

the accident was an attempted takeoff with the rudder and right aileron control locks installed, in combination with a rearward c.g., which resulted in the aircraft's rotating to a nose-high attitude immediately after takeoff and entering the region of reversed command from which the pilot was unable to recover. Contributing to the accident was the failure of the flightcrew to insure that the passenger baggage was loaded in accordance with the configuration contained on the load manifest. Their failure resulted in a rearward center of gravity that was aft of the optimum range, but forward of the rearmost limit.

Media descriptions were graphic: “Flight 216 lifted off the runway into the rainy, foggy night and then banked left. Exactly one minute later, the plane thudded to the ground and burst into flames. The bodies of all 29 persons aboard were strewn like jackstraws around the twisted fuselage,” and “The two-propeller plane  . . . broke into three pieces on impact, scattering equipment, duffel bags and college letter jackets;”  and “The muddy crash scene was littered with college letter jackets and gym bags. Some were marked, ‘Evansville Aces,’ the team's nickname.” A retrospective by usually-upbeat Evansville Living Magazine describes the nature of the crash better and more succinctly than any other account:

Ninety seconds after takeoff, Air Indiana 216 crashed into the muddy ground at the edge of airport property. The force of the impact sliced off the heels of co-pilot Ruiz’s shoes, which were on the control pedals of the aircraft. After the plane’s initial impact, the wings were ripped off, the propellers torn from the engines, and most of the passengers were ejected, many still strapped in their seats, into the cold night. The plane exploded and came to rest at the edge of a ravine, having traveled approximately 8,700 feet from takeoff on runway 18 . . . Witnesses later reported seeing the lights of the plane as it turned sharply toward Melody Hills. Some speculated the pilot may have realized there was a problem and was trying to return to the runway. They also reported an explosive noise like a shotgun blast. Investigators believed the engines lost some power, causing the pilots to increase throttle. The plane assumed an extreme nose-high, tail-low position, climbing into the clouds and disappearing for an instant before reappearing a moment later, headed toward the ground.”

The memories of witnesses conform to the horror told by the media

[F]ormer Vietnam medic [Gene Hollencamp] approached the plane he had seen drop out of the southwest Indiana sky that misty winter evening 25 years ago, he could not escape the feeling that he was walking into a graveyard. ‘As we got closer, my first impression was it looked like there were a lot of tombstones scattered around. Then I realized they were seats with many of the passengers still strapped in them.’

The location of the crash site hindered the recovery effort. The plane rested in a muddy hill, accessible only via a train track and then through deep mud.  The report in the New York Times  stated that “the bodies of the dead were lined up along the railroad track waiting for a freight car to carry them to a temporary morgue” at the Evansville Community Center, ten miles away in downtown Evansville. As the AP’s  Charles Roberts reported the horrific scene:

In the room where the rows of bodies lay beneath white sheets, which is sometimes used as a basketball court, a volleyball net was pushed aside for extra space. John Ed Washington, one of the dead players, ‘used to come in here and play ball in the gym,’ said Walter Thomas, a local resident who remembered pick-up games with Washington. ‘Now that's where they (the bodies) are. It's unreal.’

The campus of 5,000 was stunned.  Even as rescue workers pulled victims from the crash and placed their bodies in rubber bags, many students stayed up all night praying for their fallen classmates. Classes were canceled. The next day 1,500 students packing the chapel on December 14 for prayers and eulogies of the fallen, and that Sunday 4,000 packed ancient Roberts Stadium, the Aces’ home court, for a memorial service.
The accident was the sixth ever involving a US athletic team.  However, despite the perception that charter travel was more dangerous than flying with commercial carriers, Time was quick to point out that “Federal regulations require charter pilots to pass stiff medical and flying tests and hold small charter firms to almost the same strict maintenance requirements met by big commercial carriers. The DC-3 in last week's crash was almost 30 years old but, according to officials at the safety board, appeared to have been kept in good condition by its owner, National Jet Service Inc. of Indianapolis.”
There were members of the basketball program who had not been on the flight. Assistant coaches Stafford Stephenson and Mark Sandy were, respectively, recruiting and scouting upcoming opponents.  Both learned of the crash through the media. Athletic director Jim Byers was interviewing a prospective baseball coach. And, finally, there was one player on the team had missed the flight.  Freshman David Furr had injured his ankle in preseason practices and was out for the season; he still acted as statistician for the team.  Two weeks after the crash in Evansville took his entire team, Furr and his younger Byron brother were driving home from a high school holiday tournament when their car was stricken by a truck, killing both young men.
A memorial plaza was built on the campus to the victims of the crash, and a memorial moment of silence precedes the first Aces’ home game each season.  However, Evansville decided to not live in the past. Instead, they immediately looked to build for the future:

The way the Evansville Purple Aces came back home last Wednesday night was by running through a purple paper barrier and out onto the court, with the band playing and the cheerleaders tumbling and the people roaring. There was not a misty eye in the place, because it was basketball season again, and that is a time of raucous joy in the little river city in southern Indiana. Of course, there was also an altogether different group of Purple Aces that the people of Evansville knew well, but all of them had gone down in a chartered plane. It shattered on a muddy hillside just outside of town last Dec. 13. But it is another season now, another winter's dream, and as the Evansville Courier wrote last week of that desperately sorrowful night less than a year ago, ‘that was once upon a time . . . at first, the fans had even found it hard to embrace the new coach, whose name is Dick Walters. They wished him well. They were polite to him when he talked about "rebuilding the program." But in their sorrow they were not able to give him their hearts. Then, in October, came the first day of practice, and 450 fans showed up to watch the new team that Walters had assembled. Mike Blake, the Aces' TV play-by-play announcer, recalls, "It all changed then. Once the people saw boys playing basketball again, they could accept Dick." He did not really exist in Evansville until he had a team and a season.

Or, as sportswriter Frank Deford summed everything up, “assembling a reasonably good team was easier, it seems, than battling ghosts.”