50 years ago today: Lakers narrowly avert disaster
January, 18, 2010
By Brian Kamenetzky
In 1960, the Lakers narrowly averted being part of a major air disaster when their DC-3 charter crashed in an Iowa cornfield. Nobody on the plane was hurt.
50 years ago today, in the early morning hours of January 18, 1960, the then-Minneapolis Lakers only barely averted a tragedy of catastrophic proportions. The Lakers were coming home from a game in St. Louis when about 10 minutes into the flight the generator in the team's DC-3 charter failed, leaving the pilots without lights, heat, navigation devices, and radio power.
Unable to return back to Lambert Field in St. Louis because of the number of planes backed up over the airport, the pilots continued, hoping to navigate their way towards Minneapolis by starlight. They lost course, and soon had serious worries about fuel.
Roland Lazenby writes about that night in his outstanding history of the team, "The Show: The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers in the Words of Those Who Lived It:
"A few days earlier, Jimmy Krebs's new Ouija board had warned that the plane would crash, which was something they now remembered. As the engines droned on, the cabin got colder and quieter. The passengers wrapped themselves in blankets and measured their breathing in the unpressurized plane.
The flight to Minneapolis, normally two hours, stretched to three, then three and a half. Ice formed, first on the wings and windows, then in the cabin itself. Worry became fear. Knowing they were about out of fuel an nowhere near Minneapolis (pilot Vernon) Ullman decided to take the plane down and look for a place to land. As they descended, his copilot opened the cockpit window, reached out, and scraped the ice from the windshield. Fortunately, the terrain was flat. Shining the flashlight out of the cockpit window, the pilots spied a hamlet and a water tower, which read Carroll, Iowa. They would later discover that they had strayed about 150 miles off course, but at the moment that wasn't the issue. Ullman began buzzing the town, hoping to awaken someone who might turn on the lights at a local airstrip. It soon became obvious there was none...
...About 300 feet up, the plane began following a car on a road, its lights barely visible through the storm. But then the car headed up a hill, and Ullman abruptly pulled the plane up, sending jitters through the passengers. (Elgin) Baylor decided to take his blanket and lie down in the aisle at the back of the plane. If I'm going to die, I might as well die comfortably, he thought as he braced himself against the seat supports on either side. Krebs began making public vows. If the plane landed safely, he'd quit cheating at cards. He'd play hard on the court. And throw away his Ouija board.
The plane made several more passes, each one goosing the passengers' anxiety higher. At one point, Ullman pulled up to avoid high-tension wires. On the final try, the pilot cut the engines and the plane floated into a cornfield. The crop had been left uncut, and three feet of snow rested on top of the corn. Touchdown was pillow soft...
...The passengers cheered and upon emptying from the plane engaged in a joyful snowball fight. Soon they calmed down to realize they had a mile hike across the cornfield in crotch-deep snow to the road. Nobody seemed to mind..."
The citizens of Carroll (all 10,000 of them, give or take) are honoring that night with a social hour and dedication. The cornfield itself is now a subdivision, meaning the monument will have to be placed in a nearby park. While the potential loss of life- 23 people were on board that plane- is always paramount, it's also amazing to think how the course of sports history could have changed that night.
Certainly the Lakers are aware.