Posted Jan 15 2010 2:07PM
Somehow, the headline on the Web site of the Carroll (Iowa) Daily Times Herald -- "Carroll to celebrate 50th anniversary of Minneapolis Lakers' forced airplane landing here" -- seems a little off. Celebrate? A forced landing? It seems more like something you'd rather wipe from your memory altogether: Possibly the closest call in NBA history and one of the league's most harrowing incidents.
Then again, it was a big deal in Carroll, a town of about 10,000 folks in western Iowa along the Middle Raccoon River. That night 50 years ago -- Jan. 18, 1960 -- put Carroll on the map, you might say, because of how close the Lakers came to being put -- splat! -- literally on the map themselves.
Besides, when you get past the frightful sequence of events on the team's old DC-3 aircraft, you remember that, in aviation, a forced landing from which everyone walks away beats the alternative 100 times out of 100. The Lakers, the pilots and the civilians on board kept on going, living their lives, many of them for most or all of the half-century since.
Take Bobby (Slick) Leonard, for instance. Leonard was 27 at the time, in his fourth season with the Lakers, a two-time all-America at Indiana and captain of the Hoosiers' 1953 NCAA championship team. He wrapped up his playing career in Chicago in 1962-63 and by 1968-69 had taken over as head coach of the Indiana Pacers, winning three ABA championships and 529 games over 12 seasons as the franchise transitioned into the NBA in 1976-77. He is now in his 25th year as a Pacers broadcaster. One summer in the late 1970s, Leonard hosted a telethon to keep the franchise in Indianapolis. He and his wife Nancy have five children (two born after the unnerving flight) and seven grandchildren.
Much of the above paragraph doesn't happen if pilot Vern Ullman and co-pilot Harold Gifford don't find that cornfield just outside of Carroll on Hilbert Steffes' farm and set that crippled plane down just so. And that's just one fella's story.
There was another guy on the flight named Elgin Baylor. And a bunch more -- Jim Pollard, Frank Selvy, Hot Rod Hundley, Jim Krebs, Tom Hawkins, 23 people in all. The Lakers? The organization would move to Los Angeles a few months later and eventually win nine more NBA titles.
So celebrate? Heck, yes.
"It was a hairy ordeal," Leonard told me the other night in Minneapolis. He was back in town to work a Pacers-Timberwolves game and, of course, he could laugh a little now, safe and long removed from the big scare. At the time, though ...
"From takeoff to the time we hit in that cornfield, we were up there somewhere between two and three hours," Leonard recalled. "We were running out of gas, so they did everything they could to find someplace. It was a snowstorm but when the moon came out, that's when we started buzzing that town. You saw the lights start coming on below us. I heard one of the pilots say, 'That looks like a cornfield. We're gonna have to put it down. We're gonna have to put it down.' "
The Lakers had lost a Sunday afternoon game in St. Louis, 135-119, and were at Lambert Field by about 5:30 p.m., their converted World War II cargo plane ready to go (built in the 1930s, it had been retired by Western Airlines before being purchased by Lakers owner Bob Short). An ice storm grounded all flights, however, for several hours. Eventually the weather broke, the team boarded and the plane took off.
Within minutes, the lights went out. "I thought it was one of our guys joking around," said Pollard, the four-time Lakers All-Star who had taken over as coach two weeks earlier. In Minnesota, author Stew Thornley's book, Basketball's Original Dynasty: The History of the Lakers, Pollard (who died in 1993) continued: "But when I got to the front, I saw the co-pilot shining a flashlight on the instrument panel." The twin-engine plane's generators had failed and the battery was drained from waiting out the storm so long on the ground.
"We were flying in the dark, and it was cold as hell," guard Dick Garmaker told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in October. From his seat in the front row, Garmaker could see Ullman and Gifford poking their heads out the sliding windows on the sides of the cockpit due to the frosted windshield. The pilots took the DC-3 high in an attempt to get over the storm but the unpressurized cabin limited that option. So they took the plane down low to within 200 feet of the ground.
Ullman and Gifford spotted lights, then a water tower. They made several passes, "buzzing" the town in hopes of finding an air strip or waking the residents for help of some sort. With the gauges dead, the plane's remaining fuel became an issue. The pilots decided to risk a landing and scouted for a suitable road. At one point, Ullman had to pull up to avoid a cluster of trees. Then they saw a cornfield north of the town and, having grown up on farms, they knew it would be relatively level. Bad weather that fall had kept the owner from harvesting, so the corn stalks stood tall.
Here's where a story about Baylor, perhaps apocryphal, kicks in. Then in his second season, the eventual Hall of Famer reputedly lay down in the aisle near the back of the plane. Some claim Baylor calculated that, if the plane went in nose down, he might simply slide feet-first down the aisle. Others recall him saying something like, "If we're going to crash, I might as well go comfortably."
Leonard can't confirm or deny the tale. "Because it was so cold in the plane, me and Hot Rod were sitting there and we had G.I. blankets on our heads, leaning over. We started making passes over Carroll. Then we had to clear high-tension wires, they couldn't read the terrain -- there were a lot of things going on. So I didn't have time to turn around and see where Elgin was. But it sounds good and, knowing him, that's Elgin."
Turns out, they all went comfortably. The snow, the corn stalks, Ullman's skill and the fact that the tail wheel hooked on a strand of the farm's barbed-wire fence all combined for a safe, cushioned landing. "We jumped off. The snow was up to our chests in that cornfield," Leonard said. "I rode into town in the back of a hearse. They had all the red lights flashing, the emergency vehicles, all the police they had."
Leonard also noticed something dead-ahead in the plane's path that, in his many re-tellings, gets a little closer and a little deeper each time. "The next day -- we took a bus to Minneapolis -- we went out there and saw it: If we had gone, I'd say, another 40 or 50 yards, we'd have gone off into a ravine."
Short dispatched mechanics to repair the plane, then hired a bulldozer to clear a runway, enabling Ullman to fly the DC-3 out a few days later. "Then in April," Leonard said, setting up a rest-of-the-story kicker worthy of Paul Harvey, "we're in the playoffs. We go out here to the airport and there's that damn plane sitting there. Same plane! The guys said, 'We're not getting on that.' And Short said, 'You don't get on, you don't have a job.' So we got on. Well, we figured lightning wouldn't strike twice."
That's where most versions of this nerve-wracking episode end. I prefer the scene at the retirement hotel in Carroll where the Lakers were deposited for the night.
"Here's all these old ladies and old men -- at that time, we were young -- in their nightgowns," Leonard said. "They wanted to see what was going on. They had a little bar with about eight chairs around it, and there was a liquor cabinet. They had a padlock on that liquor cabinet, and old Larry Foust [a 6-foot-9 center from LaSalle] -- Larry's passed away now -- he went over there and twisted that sonuvabitch right off of there. He got himself a fifth of VO [Canadian whiskey] and poured himself a big glass."
With all due respect to Carroll and its anniversary Monday, that is how you celebrate a forced landing.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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