Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 18, 1960: In an Iowa cornfield

CARROLL, Iowa - It was a bit of a risk, but the plane took off in an ice storm. It was just as well, too, as the Minneapolis Lakers were sick of waiting. Coming off a loss to the St. Louis Hawks, they were stuck on the runway in St. Louis as an ice storm came through, grounding all flights. Finally, after sitting in an idling plane for what seemed like forever, the Lakers were given permission to take off.

The plane was soon in the air. When the plane stopped climbing, a couple players got out a makeshift card table to begin a game, but as soon as the first card was dealt, the lights went out. Coach Jim Pollard thought at first that a player had played a prank, but when he went up to the front of the plane, he saw co-pilot Harold Gifford reading the instruments with a flashlight. After sitting and idling for so long, the plane had lost all battery power.

It could still fly, though, so pilot Vern Ullman took the plane up above the storm, hoping to catch a glimpse of the North Star to direct it to Minneapolis. It was a terrible flight - with no battery power, there was no heat in the cockpit, no air pressure control. Players and passengers were shivering and becoming short of breath. The pilots, meanwhile, came to a realization: with no battery power, they had no way of knowing if they had enough fuel to make it to Minneapolis.

Fearing the worst, Ullman and Gifford decided to scan the ground to look for an airport, any airport. In the winter storm, though, it was hard to see anything. Finally, they saw the lights of a city up ahead. They turned and flew by the water tower, hoping to catch a glimpse of the city they were by. All they could see was three letters: "OLL."

Meanwhile, down at street level, the townsfolk of Carroll, Iowa, knew what was going on. It didn't take them long to realize that a plane was in trouble over head, and though they didn't know who was on the plane, they did what they could. A gas truck followed the plane along the highway, trying to catch its attention to direct it toward the airport. Meanwhile, calls were placed around the town, telling townsfolk about the situation and imploring them to turn on their lights to give better visibility to the plane.

Up above, passengers in the plane noticed the town suddenly light up like a Christmas tree. But there was still no sign of an airport. Ullman was flying low to the ground, along a highway, trying to find the airport. He didn't notice that the highway had turned, and that they were flying straight toward a grove of trees. Catching his mistake at the last minute, Ullman pulled up just in time, saving the plane from doom.

Down below, townsfolk were paying close attention, worried that there was nothing they could do. The plane was being followed by, among other vehicles, an ambulance and the town hearse. Things looked grim.

Ullman and Giffords decided to give up looking for the runway. Sticking their heads out of the window because of a frosted-over windshield, they spotted a cornfield in the distance that seemed like it had enough clearance for which to land. Luckily, the farmer hadn't harvested his crop that fall because of overly wet weather. The cornstalks made it possible to spot the field in the dark.

The plane turned and went for the cornfield, making a perfectly smooth landing. It was so smooth, in fact, that some people on the plane didn't even realize they were finally on the ground. Helping matters was that Ullman had accidentally hooked part of the tail fin on a barbed wire fence, which helped bring the plane to a stop as if it had landed on an aircraft carrier.

The townsfolk cheered the perfect landing, then were stunned when they saw the passengers disembark. There were an awful lot of tall men in Carroll, Iowa, that night. One by one, the players waded through the snow to the vehicle of a Carroll resident, to be brought to the town hotel. The last to get off the plane was Pollard, who took a ride in the only vehicle left: the aforementioned hearse. He said that he hadn't been worried at all during the flight. It was only when he realized the plane had been followed by a hearse that he realized how close the Lakers had come to disaster.

The Lakers took a bus to Minneapolis the next day, and the pilots - aided by a makeshift runway plowed into the cornfield - were eventually able to fly the plane out of Carroll and back to Minneapolis. It was an incredibly lucky flight, and it underscores another significant fact: despite having teams travelling around the country for more than a century, whether by train, bus, or plane, no major American professional sports team has ever had a major transportation accident. It's happened to college sports teams, and it's happened to professional sports teams in other countries, but never to an American team. And the NBA world has Vern Ullman and Harold Gifford to thank for that.

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