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JERRY CROWE / CROWE'S NEST

In 1960, the Lakers had their worst trip ever

A copilot recalls the harrowing flight the Minneapolis Lakers took 50 years ago on a cold winter's night after a game in St. Louis -- a flight that ended with a makeshift landing in an Iowa cornfield and could have ended much worse for Elgin Baylor and others aboard the DC-3.

April 11, 2010|Jerry Crowe

Shaken and shivering aboard an infirm aircraft, the Minneapolis Lakers were on the brink of elimination.

Sudden death loomed.

Hours earlier, on a Sunday afternoon in St. Louis, Elgin Baylor & Co. had lost to the St. Louis Hawks, the latest ignominy in a forgettable season that would lead to the Lakers' move, months later, to a brighter future in Los Angeles.

The loss, however, was the last thing on the Lakers' minds, or their pilots', as they flew nervously into a dark and dangerous night aboard a frozen twin-propeller airplane that suffered an electrical failure only minutes after takeoff on Jan. 17, 1960.

"For a time," copilot Harold Gifford says from his home in Woodbury, Minn., "we weren't sure if we'd make it."

Ultimately, they did, touching down safely in an Iowa cornfield.

But the flight was nothing short of terrifying, the Lakers' destiny hanging in the balance for the better part of 5½ hours.

"You're trying not to think of all the negative things that can happen," Tommy Hawkins, a Lakers rookie in the 1959-60 season, says of the ordeal, "but there's no assurance that they won't.

"You're scared to death."

The electrical failure left the Lakers' club-owned, 1930s-built DC-3 without a working radio, leaving the three-man crew without means of communication or navigation. Its lights and instruments also were out, and there was no heat, the temperature inside the cabin plummeting to well below freezing.

With nine players aboard, as well as interim coach Jim Pollard and 13 others, the flight veered well off course.

Only 11 months earlier, a plane crash in Iowa had claimed the lives of rockers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. " The Big Bopper" Richardson.

The Lakers were spared a similar end thanks to the efforts of Gifford, pilot Verne Ullman and trainee Jim Holznagel.

Gifford, 86, details the experience in an autobiography he hopes to have published, "Flying by the Seat of My Pants: How We Saved the Lakers and Other True Adventures of a Military and Commercial Pilot."

He writes that the passengers, Hot Rod Hundley and six other future Los Angeles Lakers among them, were "not too unlike death-row inmates sweating out their last hours of life."

As for the crew, Gifford writes, "we were too occupied summoning all we had learned in training and experience to bring this flight to a satisfactory conclusion."

They did, successfully landing on Emma Steffes' farm in Carroll, Iowa, at about 1:40 a.m. on Jan. 18.

"Before we touched down," Gifford says in an interview, "it was deathly quiet on that plane. But as soon as we came to a stop, everybody just roared. Oh my God, it was overwhelming.

"And of course I just sat there like a dish rag. I was exhausted from anxiety and tension and adrenaline."

Gifford says it was his idea to land in the snow-covered cornfield because its standing stalks gave the pilots visual reference.

They'd been airborne for several hours at that point, frost accumulating on the floor and windows, fuel diminishing and their whereabouts unknown. Trying to steer clear of the foul weather, they'd taken the unpressurized plane above the storm to about 17,000 feet, far above the DC-3's normal flying altitude. The turbulence and altitude made several passengers ill, Gifford says, but all remained outwardly calm.

"There were no hysterical Hatties on that plane," Hawkins confirms.

Unable to ditch the storm and concerned they were running short of time and fuel, the pilots brought the plane down to below the 500-foot cloud ceiling and looked for a place to land.

With the windshield iced over, his face and ears freezing from the bitter cold, Gifford says he was forced to peer out an open ventilator window to see the ground.

Spotting the lights of Carroll, the pilots made several passes over the small town 75 miles northwest of Des Moines, searching in vain for an airport. At one point, tracking a highway only to have it unexpectedly veer sharply to the left, they narrowly avoided crashing into a grove of trees.

The noise of the plane awoke the townspeople, and several greeted the passengers when they landed, unscathed.

"I live to love again!" Hundley shouted upon landing intact. He and his gleeful teammates piled out into the snow, pelting each other with snowballs. Among their greeters was a mortician, the man telling the Lakers, according to Hawkins, "Thought I had some business tonight, boys."

Ullman later flew the plane out of the cornfield. The Lakers, after spending the night in Carroll, were bused to Minneapolis.

In January, on the 50th anniversary of the landing, Carroll commemorated the event by unveiling a marker that will be placed in a park near where the DC-3 touched down.

Gifford was there for the unveiling — Ullman died in 1965 — and town historian John Steffes, a distant relative of the farmer whose cornfield had provided the makeshift landing strip, said of the copilot, "We could call him Carroll's own Capt. [ Chesley] Sullenberger."

Lakers executive Jeanie Buss sent her regrets, but noted in a letter, "It is quite feasible that had the team been wiped out that night this legendary franchise might not have endured."

She too lauded the pilots.

Afterward, Gifford says, he had hoped to charter a small plane to fly out over the scene — "just to kind of relive the experience" — but the weather was poor and visibility low.

He drove out instead.

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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