Kobe Bryant’s death joins long list of sports aviation tragedies

5-time NBA champion dies in California helicopter crash

Firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash where former NBA star Kobe Bryant died, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Calabasas, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash where former NBA star Kobe Bryant died, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Calabasas, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ORLANDO, Fla. – With sad news Sunday out of California involving the death of former NBA great Kobe Bryant, America is once again reminded how quickly lives can change when tragedy occurs.

For sports figures, aviation crashes are not a new occurrence. The reality is that because of their schedules, athletes, as well as their coaches and staff, are constantly on the road traveling to and from sports venues.

To date, there has not been a major aviation incident involving an entire U.S. professional sports team. The U.S. has lost many collegiate athletes, an entire Olympic skating team, and many sports individuals, (either on a commercial jet, charter plane or piloting their own aircraft), but no U.S. professional team has ever been killed in an aviation crash.

If however, it were to happen, there are contingencies:

The NHL has bylaw 16-C, The Emergency Rehabilitation Plan. The NFL, MLB and NBA also all have contingency plans that call for a dispersal draft from the roster of other teams and an adjustment period or delay of the season.

Kobe Bryant, a five-time NBA champion, has been retired from the NBA since 2016, but continued to lead a very public life centered around sports.

The following is a list of selected aviation accidents involving U.S. athletes. One entry involves NBC sports executive Dick Ebersol:

October 11, 2006; (2 deaths): New York City- Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and flight instructor Tyler Stanger were killed when Lidle’s Cirrus SR20 crashed into a 50 story building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The two men flew the aircraft from Teterboro Airport (in New Jersey); the flight took them down the west side of Manhattan, around the southern tip and then northbound over the East River. The plane smashed into the 40th floor of the Belaire condominium building at 524 East 72nd Street as it seemed the pilots were trying to execute a u-turn in the small corridor (only about 710 yards wide). Two people inside the apartment that took a direct hit from the accident were injured.

The crash occurred just thirteen minutes after the plane left New Jersey; Lidle and Stanger were the only two people aboard. Within two days of the crash, the FAA placed new restrictions on some aircraft flying through the East River corridor. New rules required small fixed wing planes (this excludes helicopters and seaplanes) to be in contact with air traffic controllers before entering the corridor. Old rules let any plane into the area as long as the pilot kept the aircraft below 1,100 feet and the weather provided good visibility.

On May 1, 2007, the NTSB ruled that pilot error was to blame for the crash, citing “inadequate planning, judgment and airmanship” although the agency at the time couldn’t say for sure which man was at the controls of the plane when it crashed. NTSB: DCA07MA003

October 24, 2004; (10 total deaths, 2 crew/8 pax): Stuart, Virginia- A Beech 200 King Air (N501RH) crashed into high ground after a missed approach to Martinsville/Blue Ridge Airport. The aircraft was owned by Hendrick Motorsports Inc.; among those killed were Ricky Hendrick Jr., former NASCAR driver and son of team owner Rick Hendrick, John Hendrick, Rick Hendrick’s brother (John was president of Hendrick Motorsports), Kimberly and Jennifer Hendrick (John Hendrick’s 22-year-old twin daughters), Jeff Turner, (general manager of Hendrick Motorsports) and Randy Dorton, Hendrick Motorsports’ chief engine builder. Also on the plane: Joe Jackson, an executive with DuPont, Scott Lathram, a pilot for NASCAR driver Tony Stewart and pilots Richard Tracy and Elizabeth Morrison.

At the time of the crash, Hendrick Motorsports owned the #24 Jeff Gordon team, #48 Jimmie Johnson team and the #25 Brian Vickers team running in the NEXTEL Cup division of NASCAR. The aircraft and its occupants were on their way to the Subway 500 being run that day in Martinsville, Virginia.

A preliminary report by the NTSB revealed the flight crew continued to descend after the missed approach instead of climbing away from the airport. The plane smashed into the side of Bull Mountain, some 2,450 feet above sea level. Visibility at the time of the crash was “zero” as Bull Mountain was enveloped in clouds and fog. Jimmie Johnson won the race in Martinsville that afternoon. He and teammate Jeff Gordon finished the season 2nd and 3rd in the NEXTEL Cup point standings.

On February 7, 2006, the NTSB’s final report put the blame of the crash on the flight crew’s failure to properly follow procedures for an ILS landing and a failure to use all available navigation systems on the plane. NTSB: IAD05MA006

November 28, 2004; (3 total deaths, 2 crew/1 passenger): Montrose, Colorado- A Global Aviation Bombardier CL-600-2A12 Challenger 601 (N873G- Glo Air Flight 73 en route from Montrose to South Bend, Indiana), crashed during takeoff from Montrose County Airport. As the aircraft started to lift off, it tipped to the right, slid through the snow, crashed through a perimeter fence, slid across a road and came to rest in the field of a dairy farm. The NTSB determined the crash was caused by the crew’s failure to de-ice the wings of the plane. Although the plane was only in Montrose for 50 minutes, the board concluded the light snow interfered with the proper operation of the wings. Three people survived the crash, but the pilot, a flight attendant and a passenger were killed. The plane was operated by Air Castle Corporation, designated a Global Aviation flight and owned by Hop-a-Jet Inc.

Among the survivors of the crash were NBC television executive Dick Ebersol. Ebersol was seriously injured suffering a broken sternum, broken ribs and fluid in his lungs. Ebersol’s oldest son Charles also survived the crash, but his 14-year-old son Teddy Ebersol however was killed. Dick Ebersol is married to actress Susan Saint James (Saint James was not aboard the plane when it crashed).

A very random fact about Dick Ebersol: aside from Carly Simon, he is said to be the only other person who truly knows the meaning of Simon’s 1972 smash hit “You’re So Vain.” Ebersol found out when he won a charity auction; the grand prize for the winner was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with Simon and the promise of full disclosure of the origins and meaning of the song. Ebersol had to sign a confidentiality agreement to collect his prize. NTSB: DEN05MA029

January 27, 2001; (10 total deaths, 2 crew/8 pax): Byers, Colorado- Two players from the Oklahoma State University basketball team were killed along with a student, a play-by-play commentator and six other OSU staffers, when their Beechcraft King Air 200 Catpass crashed 20 minutes after takeoff. The players, Dan Lawson and Nate Fleming, were traveling back from Boulder, Colorado after a road game against the University of Colorado. The turboprop plunged out of the sky 50 miles from the airport it took off from. Weather at the time was light snow and freezing temperatures. The Beechcraft was owned by North Bay Charter of Reno, Nevada and was one of three carrying OSU members. The other two aircraft were chartered jets, able to fly above bad weather. Almost one year after the crash, the NTSB concluded that the crash was due to pilot error. The NTSB said that some of the plane’s instruments stopped working after an “electrical malfunction”; the pilot however elected not to use backup instruments.

On November 17, 2011, more than ten years after the tragedy, four more people affiliated with Cowboy Nation basketball were killed in another plane crash. This time, women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke and his assistant Miranda Serna were killed along with pilot Olin Branstetter and his wife Paula (both were OSU alumni). The Branstetter’s Piper Cherokee PA-28-180 (N7746W) crashed into the Winona Wildlife Management Area near Perryville, Arkansas (Perryville is about 45 miles west of Little Rock). The four were on their way from Stillwater Oklahoma (home of OSU) to Little Rock for a recruiting trip. N7746W was built in 1964 and was powered by a 180hp Lycoming O&VO-360 SER engine. Branstetter was a former Oklahoma State Senator (1987-1991) and the couple had had established numerous scholarships at OSU. Both of the Branstetters were avid pilots; Olin (who was 82) was a certified flight instructor and Paula (79) was the first woman ever to fly over the magnetic North Pole in a single engine stock aircraft (the 1984 feat involved Olin, Paula and their son Jack flying over the Pole). NTSB: DCA01MA017

October 25, 1999; (6 total deaths, 2 crew/4 pax): Aberdeen, South Dakota- PGA golfer Payne Stewart was killed along with three other passengers when the Learjet 35 he was traveling in suffered a decompression, incapacitating the crew and sending the plane on a four-hour 1,400 mile pilot-less flight. The aircraft eventually ran out of fuel and crashed in rural South Dakota.

The Learjet 35 was flying at 40,000 feet; at that altitude, pilots have less than 10 seconds to respond to a rapid decompression situation and put on oxygen masks. As the human body receives less oxygen, hypoxia occurs, initially impairing brain functions and eventually leading to death. In a decompression situation, if pilots don not immediately don oxygen masks, their impairment starts within seconds and they are more likely to make the wrong decisions. Fighter jets that shadowed the aircraft noted that the windows were iced up and that there was no movement from anyone inside the cabin, speculating that their cabin had been depressurized.

The Learjet was owned by SunJet Aviation, of Orlando, and was en route from Orlando to Dallas. Killed in the crash along with Stewart were: pilots Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrique, Robert Farley and Van Ardan (Stewart’s agents) and golf course designer Bruce Borland. Ironically, Kling had served in the USAF and had taught pilots how to recognize hypoxia.

In January of 2001, the FAA told a federal judge that it believed SunJet owner James Watkins Sr. had falsified records about how many training hours the two pilots had. Kling, who had thousands of hours of flight time, had only been cleared to fly the Learjet a month before the crash; Bellegarrique had been Learjet certified for six months.

The NTSB eventually concluded that the plane did indeed suffer a decompression event, but could not pinpoint why it occurred because of the extensive damage upon impact, the lack of a cockpit voice recording (the 30 minute loop was recorded over multiple times) and the absence of flight data information (these types of aircraft are not required to have flight data recorders). One theory is that the Lear’s outflow valve somehow opened and remained stuck in that position. An outflow valve is a device that is used to regulate the internal pressure of an airplane by opening and closing. On the ground, a valve is completely open, equalizing the pressure. During cruise however, the valve stays mostly closed, building pressure in the plane and keeping the “cabin altitude” comfortable for those on board.

Stewart had recently won the U.S. Open and was part of America’s winning Ryder Cup team for the third time. In his career, he won eleven PGA tournaments, including three majors. NTSB: DCA00MA005

July 12, 1993; (1 death): Hueytown, Alabama- NASCAR driver Davey Allison, was seriously injured when the helicopter he was flying crashed during a landing attempt at the infield at Talladega Superspeedway. Allison died from his injuries the next day. NTSB investigators determined Allison’s lack of experience flying the helicopter (he only had 9 hours of flight time) and the fact that he tried to land downwind contributed to the accident.

Davey Allison was 32-years old when he was killed. He was the oldest son of legendary NASCAR driver Bobby Allison and nephew to Bobby’s brother, fellow driver Donnie Allison. Davey’s younger brother Clifford was killed just eleven months earlier in a racing accident. His father, Bobby was forced into retirement after devastating injuries from another crash, that one at Pocono International Speedway.

Racing veteran Red Farmer was also on-board the helicopter when the accident occurred; he escaped with a broken collarbone and broken ribs. Allison’s crash was at the same racetrack where he gained his first NASCAR victory in 1987. NTSB: ATL93FA127

April 1, 1993; (4 total deaths, the pilot/3 pax): Blountville, Tennessee- 1992 NASCAR champion Alan Kulwicki was killed with two other passengers when the plane they were traveling in crashed as it approached the airport in Kingsport, Tennessee. Kulwicki had just finished an autograph session in Knoxville and was heading to Bristol International Raceway on a Hooters corporate plane when the crash occurred. The Fairchild Merlin 300 twin turboprop crashed six miles from Tri-Cities Regional Airport in a light rain and fog conditions.

Also killed in the crash: 26-year-old Mark Brooks (son of the Hooters founder Robert Brooks) and 44-year-old Hooters sports marketing director Dan Duncan. The pilot of the plane was 48-year-old Charlie Campbell. Less than a year later, the NTSB said the cause of the crash was icing, but blamed the pilot for not following procedures for anti-icing and de-icing systems on the engines. As a result of the conditions, the engines ingested ice and stalled.

Kulwicki’s death actually led to a Winston Cup tradition, the reverse victory lap or as some like to call it, the “Polish Victory Lap”. Driver Rusty Wallace won the Food City 500 three days after Kulwicki’s death and was the first to drive the clockwise post-race lap in memory of the 1992 points champion. NTSB: ATL93MA068

November 25, 1985; (7 total deaths, the pilot/6 pax): Des Moines, Iowa- Six members of the Iowa State women’s cross-country team were killed when their Rockwell International 500 S twin engine plane crashed in bad weather. The team (originally heading to Ames, Iowa) was returning from an event at Milwaukee’s Marquette University but was diverted to Des Moines because of bad weather. Killed were three runners: Julie Rose, 21, Sheryl Maahs, 20, and Susan Baxter, 22. Also on the plane: coach Ron Renko, assistant coach Pat Moynihan and student manager Stephanie Streit. The pilot of the aircraft was Burton Watkins. There were no survivors. The NTSB concluded that the pilot lost control of the aircraft after encountering severe turbulence possibly from the wake vortex of a 727 that was 4.7 miles away. Ice on the wings and inadequate airspeed also contributed to the crash. NTSB: MKC86MA031

March 14, 1980; (87 total deaths, 10 crew/77 pax): Warsaw, Poland- A LOT (Polish Airlines) Ilyushin-62 airliner, (Flight 007 en route from New York to Warsaw), crashed as the flight crew was trying to make an emergency landing. There were no survivors. The aircraft had developed problems with its landing gear; during the second landing attempt an engine turbine failed, as the aircraft was attempting a go-around. When power was applied, the turbine came apart, damaging three of the four plane’s engines and destroying the aircraft’s steering. The IL-62 crashed 1,000 feet from a runway, sinking into a moat of an historic fort. Killed in the crash were 14 boxers and eight officials/aides from the U.S. amateur boxing team, including Lemuel Stephens and Andre McCoy, both of whom at the time were two of the best amateur fighters in the U.S.

August 2, 1979; (1 death): Canton, Ohio-Thurman Munson, the popular catcher of the New York Yankees, was killed in a private plane crash. The 32-year-old Munson was flying his own private plane, a Cessna Citation, when the crash occurred. Munson bought the $1.2 million jet just four weeks earlier to cut down on the commute back and forth between New York and Canton (where his family lived).

The crash occurred while Munson was practicing touch-and-gos, as he wasn’t completely comfortable with flying his new corporate jet. At the time of the crash, Munson had just 33 hours of flying time on the Citation, compared with over 500 hours on prop aircraft.

Thurman Munson took along two passengers: David Hall and Jerry Anderson. On the aircraft’s fourth practice run, Munson accidentally cut power to the engines instead of lowering the landing gear. The engines would not restart; the aircraft hit a cluster of trees (shearing off the wings), hit the ground and spun 180 degrees before striking a large tree stump and coming to rest on Greensburg Road (running adjacent to the airport).

Both passengers escaped from the aircraft, which quickly caught fire. Munson “officially” died from asphyxiation, although the coroner revealed he had been paralyzed from the neck down from the impact of the crash. The NTSB determined pilot error led to the crash; Munson was 32-years-old. Just one-year earlier, the Yankees were 15 games out of first place in August of 1978 before rallying back to win a second consecutive World Series.

December 13, 1977; (29 total deaths, 3 crew/24 pax/2 airline executives): Evansville, Indiana- A Douglas DC-3 carrying the University of Evansville’s basketball team, (Air Indiana Flight 216 en route from Evansville to Tennessee) crashed shortly after takeoff from Evansville’s Dress Airport. All fourteen members of the team as well as coach Bobby Watson died in the crash. The aircraft was chartered from National Jet Services and was four hours late departing Evansville. When the aircraft took off in bad weather, it immediately banked sharply and crashed less than a mile away from the airport. There were no survivors.

December 31, 1972; Central America- Roberto Clemente, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was killed in plane crash while en route from San Juan to Nicaragua. The 38-year-old future hall-of-famer was riding in an overloaded cargo plane; he was going to Nicaragua to deliver relief supplies for victims of a recent earthquake. His body was never recovered. Clemente had his 3,000th in the major leagues just three months prior to the crash.

November 14, 1970; (75 total deaths, 5 crew/70 pax): Near Huntington, West Virginia- During approach, a Southern Airways DC-9-31 (Flight 932) crashed into high ground, because the crew improperly used instrument data or the altimeter. The Southern Airways pilots had never flown into Huntington’s tiny Tri-State Airport and didn’t know about a tree-line close to the runway. The crew brought the plane down to get a better view of the runway in bad weather, clipped some trees and flipped the aircraft over where it exploded on impact with the ground. There were no survivors.

Among the dead was the entire football team for Marshall University, 37 players, seven coaches, twenty-five administrators/boosters/staff and Gene Morehouse, Marshall’s play-by-play announcer. The team was heading back to from Greenville, NC to West Virginia after a 14-17 loss to East Carolina. The Carolina trip was Marshall’s only plane trip of the 1970 season. Gene Morehouse’s son, Keith eventually became a sportscaster for Marshall football.

October 14, 1970: (2 deaths): Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania- NASCAR legend and pioneer Curtis Turner was killed when Turner’s Aero Commander 500-B (N701X) went into a tailspin and crashed into a mountain near Punxsutawney. The crash occurred just 20 minutes after takeoff and also killed professional golfer Clarence King. An autopsy report showed that King (who was piloting the plane) had a blood alcohol level of 0.17 and that Turner had suffered a massive heart attack before the crash. Turner was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) Hall of Fame in 1971 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992. He won 17 races in the Grand National series and another 22 races in the convertible division. During his career, Turner won a total of 360 races spread across multiple divisions and series. NTSB: NYC71AN043

October 2, 1970; (31 total deaths): Silver Plume, Colorado- Fourteen members of the Wichita (Kansas) State football team were killed when their Martin 404 twin engine prop plane crashed into the side of Mount Trelease. The plane, en route to a football game against Utah State, was carrying the university’s first team and was referred to as “the gold plane”. It was one of two carrying team members, special guests and boosters. In addition to the 14 players killed, the school’s athletic director and football coach also died. Nine people of the 40 on board survived. The cause of the accident was due to pilot error, as the crew had taken a scenic route suggested by one of the players and inadvertently flew into a boxed canyon.

August 31, 1969; (3 total deaths): Newton, Iowa- Former heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano, was killed when his Cessna crashed into a solitary oak tree in the middle of a cornfield. Marciano, on his way from Chicago to Des Moines with two friends for a birthday party, was attempting a landing at Newton’s Airport during bad weather when the crash occurred. He would have turned 46 the next day. Rocky Marciano was the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated; he won 49 straight fights and retired at the age of 31. Former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes came close to tying his record, but only succeeded in winning 48 straight fights before losing to Michael Spinks on April 19, 1986.

July 24, 1966; (4 total deaths, 2 crew/2pax): Lansing, Illinois- “Champagne” Tony Lema, an up and coming American golfer, was killed in a small plane crash when ironically, the aircraft attempted to land on a golf course. Lema was on his way to Chicago (with his pregnant wife Betty) for a charity exhibition at the Lincolnshire Country Club. The couple was on a chartered Beechcraft Bonanza operated by Mainline Aviation Inc.; Doris Mullen, part owner of Mainline, piloted the aircraft.

The crash occurred when the Beechcraft lost power to an engine; Mullen attempted an emergency landing on the fairway of the Lansing Sportsman’s Club. The aircraft instead crashed on the 7th fairway and burst into flame, killing all on board.

Tony Lema had won the British Open two years earlier beating Jack Nicklaus by five strokes in just his first appearance at St. Andrews. Before the British Open, Lema was riding a streak, capturing three of four victories in just as many starts in 1962. He had been playing professional golf since 1957. Lema (a former Marine) got his first victory after a fellow Marine kicked his ball back onto the fairway during a playoff in the Orange County Open. Lema had told sportswriters that if he won the tourney, it would be “champagne for everyone”. Thanks to that fellow Marine, he did, and the name stuck as he always ended his victory press conferences by ordering the bubbly. For more information on the life of Tony Lema, refer to a Sports Illustrated article from 1995, written by Ron Fimrite.

February 15, 1961; (73 total deaths, 11 crew/61 pax/1 on the ground): Brussels, Belgium- Flight 548 (a Sabena Boeing 707 en route from NYC’s Idelwild {JFK} Airport to Brussels) crashed in a field on approach to Brussels Airport. The aircraft had circled the airport twice before plunging to the ground. Of importance: the entire U.S. Figure Skating Team, their coaches and support staff were killed (a total of 34 individuals). The team was on its way to the World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The event was cancelled in the wake of the tragedy.

If there was a silver lining to the crash it was that a young American skater was suddenly elevated to help rebuild the national team. At the time of the crash, Peggy Fleming was just 12-years-old. Fleming would eventually go on to win a gold skating medal in the 1968 Olympics.

One last thing, this was the first crash ever of a Boeing 707. Author Christine Brennan wrote the book Inside Edge documenting the story of the crash and the rebuilding of the team. A picture of the aircraft can be found at:


October 10, 1960; (22 total deaths): Toledo, Ohio-Sixteen members of the Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo football team were killed when the chartered C-46 aircraft they were on crashed. Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft lost power to the left engine, cartwheeled, broke in two and burst into flame. The team was returning from a football game at Bowling Green University. Twenty-four people survived the crash. At the time, this was the worst sports aviation disaster in history.

March 31, 1931; (Eight total deaths, 2 crew/6 pax): Bazaar, Kansas- Legendary Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne was killed when Transcontinental and Western Air Flight 599 (a Fokker F-10 aircraft) crashed in a Kansas field. Rockne was en route from Kansas City to Los Angeles to supervise and appear in the movie, “The Spirit of Notre Dame”. He had just won his third national title with Notre Dame. The crash occurred when a wing separated from the aircraft. The cause of the separation was determined to be a combination of icing and a design flaw that allowed the parts of the wing to “flutter” resulting in separation. The crash single-handedly almost put the Fokker Aircraft Company out of business.

Knute Rockne was the first prominent American sports figure to die in a plane crash, (although Marvin Goodwin, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds was killed in Houston in a crash on October 18, 1925).

The Rockne crash was investigated by Anthony H.G. Fokker (founder of Fokker Aircraft) and Jack Frye, VP of Operations for Transcontinental and Western Air. Commercial air travel was in its infancy, just five years old. Four years after this crash, another took the life of New Mexico Senator Bronson M. Cutting. Congress decided no regulatory agency should investigate itself, and eventually paved the way for the creation of the NTSB.

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