Research indicates that one out of every six people suffer from some fear of flying. While the more brave among us will argue that flying is actually one of the safest ways to travel, the fact remains that accidents do happen in aviation, and they tend to be catastrophic when they do. Considering that professional athletes are forced to fly the most, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to learn that there have been dozens of air disasters throughout time that has greatly affected the sporting universe. It doesn’t matter what sport we’re talking about, the players need to fly all around the world from state to state or even country to country in order to keep playing the game they love. When you think about it, the fact that only a small number of sports related plane crashes have occurred is perhaps proof of how safe flying actually is. Less than one thousand plane related fatalities are reported annually in comparison to over one million lives lost in car accidents, despite the two forms of travel being consistent in their frequency. Sadly, this doesn’t bring back the lives lost during the various disasters that forever changed the athletic world as we know it.
Accidents happen for a multitude of reasons, and not all of them take as many lives as others. Be warned, however, that all of the stories we’re about to tell involve some loss of life, and the others irreparably changed the lives and livelihoods of any so-called lucky survivor. Check out our list of the 15 most terrifying plane crashes that forever changed sports history, and see how valid a fear of flying can actually be.
15. The Plane Crash That Changed Wrestling
The sad reality of this list is that most of these stories end in serious loss of life. For this reason, stories of plane crashes where the people onboard walked away as survivors and not victims are special in and of themselves. The so-called plane crash that changed wrestling resulted in some horrific injuries and ended two careers, but the entire sports entertainment business easily could have changed forever if one of those survivors had been hurt worse than he was. Even the injuries alone could have destroyed the sport that wasn’t yet public in how scripted it was, as well as the specific individuals on the plane. Those individuals were NWA announcer, David Crockett, and wrestlers, Mr. Wrestling II, Bobby Bruggers, Johnny Valentine, and “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair.
The crash was caused entirely by human error, due to the pilot somehow miscalculating how much fuel was needed to make the flight. According to those onboard, once the plane started going down, they all thought it was the end. Unfortunately, that was the case for the pilot, who died two months later of related injuries, but the five passengers all somehow survived. Valentine was paralyzed and had his career ended, and Bruggers likewise was forced to retire, although still with the ability to walk. The real reason this story could have changed sports, though, is the fact that Flair and Valentine were bad guys who recently feuded with Mr. Wrestling, and the industry attempted to cover up the truth of the crash for years, pretending Mr. Wrestling was a promoter. Mr. Wrestling amazingly returned to the ring only two weeks after the plane crash in order to keep up the ruse.
14. The Grande Torino Air Disaster
Italian soccer and perhaps soccer, in general, has never seen a team quite as dominant as Il Grande Torino, the nickname bestowed upon the 1940’s line-up of the Torino Football Club. The team won five consecutive Scudettos, Italy’s annual soccer championship, and was poised to continue dominating the sport until a plane crash on May 4, 1949, killed 18 players and 13 of their associates on the flight. The team was historic from their formation, as they were crafted by club owner, Ferruccio Novo, who has been cited as one of the first owners to introduce scouting networks to the sporting world.
The Grande Torino was the runner-ups in the 1941-1942 season, and they started their winning streak the next year. The Italian football championships were canceled from 1943-1945, and Torino went on to win the next three seasons once the games started back up. The team was slated to win a final championship in 1949 until the tragic flight home from a friendly game in Lisbon ended in disaster when the pilot lost control of the aircraft in poor weather conditions. The FIGC awarded the Grande Torino their final championship in tribute due to the fact they would have won if they survived, although that would be it for the legendary team that dominated the 1940s.
13. The Busby Babes Disaster In Munich
Much like their name would imply, part of what made the Busby Babes special was the fact that they were all quite young when they came to prominence as the core members of Manchester United F.C. in the late 1940s. The thing that really endeared them to fans, though, was the fact that the team was developed as a unit starting in Manchester United’s youth team, rather than being gradually pieced together from other clubs as was quickly becoming the custom in sports around the time of their fame. Nevertheless, it remained impressive when the players won league championships in the 1955-56 and 1956-57 seasons with ages averaging in their early twenties.
Unfortunately, their successes were unable to continue into the player’s old age, as eight of the core members of the team perished in the 1958 Munich air disaster, and two more were seriously injured. The plane experienced serious difficulty taking off during a snowstorm, and when it finally left the group, it almost immediately crashed into a house and spun out of control into a fiery wreck. The team was so important to the English people The Queen offered her public condolences to the incident.
12. The 1980 U.S. Figure Skating Team Disaster
In 1961, figure skating was at its peak in popularity in the US, with star player, Laurence Owen, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in anticipation of the US team heading to Prague for the World Figure Skating Championships. Only two days after the issue was released, Owen and the rest of the team tragically died near Brussels, Belgium when their plane exploded during a landing gone horribly awry. All 72 people onboard were instantly killed, including the entire U.S. figure skating team and members of their families. The only survivor was a dog in the cargo hold. The entire skating world was devastated, and it would take years for fans to regain interest in the industry due to the bad memories inexorably linked with the sport. While every item on this list is horrible, this incident is the only one to wipe out an entire sport. Internationally, skating took a respectful halt as well, with the championships scheduled in Prague being canceled on the news of the crash. Showing the extent of the sadness caused by the crash, President John F. Kennedy was personally shaken by the incident, and he had his brother Robert Kennedy give a speech on the subject on his behalf.
11. The Strongest Viloco Tragedy
It takes courage and confidence to name your team, The Strongest, and the Bolivian football team has been portraying that self-assured boast since 1908, making them the oldest active team in Bolivia. In 1969, The Strongest participated in a friendly game organized by the Asociacion Crucena de Fubol in Santa Cruz as part of a celebration ceremony for a local holiday. The team was on break from their regular competition when invited to play the match, and treated it like any other routine trip to Santa Cruz. Two days after the public holiday, The Strongest was set to return home to La Paz on the same day a military government was being established in Bolivia. The plane mysteriously disappeared and was discovered a day later, having crashed in a rural area called Viloco. All 81 people onboard died in the crash, including 17 players, the team’s coach and manager, and an additional staff member.
10. The Marshall University Thundering Herd Disaster
Local sports can tend to mean everything for a small town, and in Huntington, West Virginia, the year 1970 was dominated by the success of Marshall University’s Thundering Herd football team. Another prevalent theme in local sports is that the teams generally don’t need to travel by plane, considering away games tend not to be too far out of driving distance from the team’s home campus. Marshall’s teams in particular almost never traveled by air, making their rare choice to do so in November of 1970 all the more tragic. The exact reason the plane started to go down has never been established, and all that investigators have been able to discover was that the crash was “unsurvivable.” 37 members of the Marshall University team were on board, including 9 coaches and a number of boosters. Considering the number of fatalities, the crash has been called the deadliest tragedy in the history of United States sports.
9. The Pakhtakor Football Club Collision
Regardless of why they decided to name their team after a word that translates to “cotton-grower,” the Pakhtakor Tashkent football club is one of the most successful teams hailing from Uzbek, and the only one to have played in top-level Soviet football leagues. Pakhtakor Tashkent first participated in the league championships in 1962 and was on their way to do so again in 1979 when bizarre and tragic circumstances lead to a mid-air collision involving a plane carrying 17 Pakhtakor players and staff members. An air traffic controller noticed the two flights were on a collision course and ordered one of them to re-route, and yet somehow the signals were crossed, leading to one plane’s wing slicing through the other’s fuselage, causing a chain reaction that caused an explosion. The collision killed all 178 passengers of both flights, including the Pakhtakor players. Leonid Brezhnev had taken a private flight on the same day and caused a disruption in regular flight paths as a result, thereby leading the Soviet press to hesitate in reporting the story lest their leader be implicated in having played a role in the crash. Amazingly, the members of the team not on the flight returned to the field only 12 days after the crash to continue the 1979 campaign in tribute to their fallen teammates.
8. The Weeping Basketball Disaster
In 1977, the University of Evansville basketball team was off to a rough start due to the loss of their longtime coach Arad McCutchan. McCutchan was extremely popular amongst locals and the team itself, having earned a reputation large enough that Time magazine was calling him “the pride and passion of Evansville” due to his role as the leader of the Purple Aces. The Purple Aces weren’t ready to give up simply because the coach retired, though, and the 1977 season started off with a public relations bang that made lots of fans extremely excited for the new batch of Evansville players and their new coach. Despite the media attention the team was getting, the season started off rough, with only one win and three losses to their name. Fans and players remained high-spirited nonetheless and excitedly boarded a plane to challenge Middle Tennessee State University on December 3, 1977. The plane was delayed for hours due to horrible weather, and yet the players rushed to their seats and prepared for takeoff in a manner of minutes. Ninety seconds later, the plane had violently crashed back to the ground, due to a variety of factors including an overloaded baggage compartment. Seventeen Evansville players onboard died in the crash, and the university commissioned the Weeping Basketball Memorial in their honor.
7. The 1993 Zambia National Football Club Disaster
The 1993 Zambian national football team was considered the best ever assembled by the country. The country always had an interest in the sport of soccer, especially during the reign of President Kenneth Kaunda, an ardent fan of the game, who poured national resources into his country’s team. Once Kaunda was removed from office, the sport lost the majority of its funding, and yet the team raged on through poverty to become one of the best Africa had ever seen. Their financial strains heavily hampered on their success, though, and their means of transportation started to suffer as a result. The team borrowed their plane from the Zambian Air Force, which sounds safe in a developed country, but actually proved to be their downfall due to the poor quality in which the Zambian government kept their aircrafts. The plane they boarded en route to a 1993 World Cup qualifying match in Dakar had been decommissioned for years due to a variety of engine defects, only for the flight to go on as scheduled on April 27. Shortly after a second stop for refueling, the left engine caught fire and failed. The pilot made a fatal mistake in shutting off the second engine as well, causing the plane to lose all power and crash. All 18 players onboard died in the accident.
6. The 1980 U.S. Amateur Boxing Team Disaster
The 1980 Olympics are infamous for having been boycotted by 65 countries including the United States due to the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The United States amateur boxing team wouldn’t have been able to make the games even if their country had chosen to participate, though, due to a horrible plane crash that took the lives of 14 boxers and 8 staff members in March of that same year. The team was traveling to Poland to perform in a series of boxing competitions when pilots lost control during a rocky landing and crashed in Warsaw. The boxers who perished in the crash were mostly in their teens, and even in their deaths proved they exhibited the peak of human conditioning. Witness reports claimed most passengers were asleep when the plane crashed, but some boxers had apparently woken up and clenched onto their seats so powerfully their arms were severed through the wreck. Pan American Games champion Lemuel Steeples was considered the best athlete killed in the disaster, although he was only one of the 87 unfortunate people to die in the disaster.
5. The Colorful Eleven Disaster
In a country that has nothing, a ragtag group of soccer players putting on exhibition games for charity can be the brightest and most eventful form of entertainment around. This is how the Colorful Eleven were given their name, as the Dutch-Surinamese group formed at the behest of a social worker who dealt with underprivileged children in Amsterdam and found playing sports to be a great way for children to develop role models and speed up social integration. Despite the implications of the name, there were actually 15 members of the Colorful Eleven killed in a plane crash while traveling from Amsterdam to Suriname to play one of their many charity games. Legends of Dutch football Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard were supposed to have joined the team, only spared by deciding not to participate for undisclosed reasons. Two other players, Henny Meijer and Stanley Menzo, took earlier flights than the rest of the group and thus were saved from their teammates’ tragic fate. The aircraft struck a tree during landing, spiraling out of control and sending 176 people to their deaths.
4. The Lokomotiv Yaroslavl Disaster
The Lokomotiv Yaroslavl haven’t been a particularly successful hockey team for more than a decade now, ever since former head coach, Vladimir Vujket, Sr. left the fold after accepting a large offer from rival team Ak Bars Kazan in 2003. This hasn’t stopped them from starting every season since with their best foot forward, and they intended to continue doing so as members of the Kontinental Hockey League when the 2011-12 season began. Unfortunately, it was while traveling to Minsk for the very first game of the year that most of the team perished when their plane crashed only seconds after a botched takeoff. One of the star players of the team was Alexander Galimov, who led the team to a 7-2 record during the pre-season and scored the Lokomotiv’s final goal prior to the crash. Galimov survived the initial disaster only to die in a hospital five days later. All other players on the team died upon impact, as did all other passengers and crewmembers except the flight’s engineer. The disaster was ultimately blamed on pilot error, and in fact, neither pilot flying the plane was sufficiently trained to do so.
3. The Hendrick Motorsports Disaster
Car racing is almost certainly the sport most accustomed to fiery crashes, although this doesn’t make them any more palatable. The Hendrick Motorsports’ air disaster remains unique amongst NASCAR nonetheless for involving a plane as opposed to the usual on-field wreck the sport is known for. On the flight were most of the highest ranking members of the Hendrick Motorsports empire, including NASCAR driver Ricky Hendrick, the son of team owner Rick Hendrick. The elder Hendrick’s brother and nieces were also on the flight, making it a deeply personal family affair. The Hendrick Motorsports was quite busy on October 24, 2004, with drivers Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, and Brian Vickers all competing at the Marysville Speedway. Johnson ultimate won the race, although the team had no time to celebrate, as news of the crash broke only a few minutes after Jimmie crossed the finish line. The accident was caused by a combination of pilot error and foggy weather conditions, and all 10 people onboard were killed in the crash.
2. The Oklahoma State Cowgirls Disaster
While many of the tragedies on this list cover the death of dozens, it only takes one person dying to send a sports team into serious mourning. The Oklahoma State women’s basketball team suffered four losses in November of 2011, when head coach, Kurt Budke, assistant coach, Miranda Serna, and two other passengers were killed when their small plane crashed on the way home from a recruiting mission. Coach Budke was described as a father figure to the young women on his team, and his assistant Serna was considered like a close sister. Oklahoma State Senator Olin Branstetter and his wife Paula were the other two victims on the plane. The scariest element to this crash is that no cause has been discovered more than five years later. State Senator Branstetter was the pilot and reported no turbulence or otherwise inclement weather patterns during his boilerplate descent. No evidence was discovered indicating a medical condition may have caused him to lose control, and no problems with the engine or wiring of the aircraft could be discovered. OSU expanded their rules about players and coaches flying in small single-engine planes after the crash, and a series of lawsuits followed attempting to discover the true fault of the tragedy.
1. The Oklahoma State Cowboys Disaster
The long history of tragedy connected with Oklahoma State University began in January of 2001 when 10 members of the OSU men’s basketball team were killed in a small aircraft crash. The University has long attributed the victims of the flight with the cry “Remember the Ten,” honoring the two players, four coaches, and two sports journalists who followed the team for the local KWTV. The team had recently suffered a loss against the Colorado Buffaloes and was headed home to regroup and prepare for the rest of their season when the pilot became disoriented during a snowstorm, leading to the plane going down. The Cowboys still “remember the ten” more than a decade and a half after the event, thanks to a statue commemorating the fallen players on campus, and also the diligence of their coach in making sure the team never forgets the significance of the event. Players and supporters alike also participate in yearly “Remember The 10” runs in order to celebrate and pay tribute to the people lost in the crash, which the coach has argued is part of his effort to ensure his players how much the community will always care about and remember them.