Many sports teams have suffered tragic airline crashes down the years. This SportsAspire post describes some of the worst plane crashes involving sports teams.
Did You Know?
The deadliest aviation tragedy involving a sports team in the US occurred on November 14, 1970, when 45 members of the Marshall Thundering Herd football team and 25 boosters lost their lives in a crash near the Tri-State airport in West Virginia. The crash was caused by pilot error, precipitated by terrible weather conditions.
Sports stars are the darlings of cities, counties, and countries. They are adored when they perform at their best, supported when they go through bad patches, and mourned if, unfortunately, their careers are cut short by tragedies. There is a reason why the 1958 batch of footballers is still revered at Manchester United, and the demise of the Locomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team is regarded as a black day in hockey.
Since airplanes became the standard for sportsmen traveling all over the world, the sporting world has seen its fair share of airline disasters. Sports affected by airplane crashes range from soccer to figure skating. Regardless of the sport or their rivalries, the world unites in paying tribute to those unlucky ones who have had their best years taken from them by a stroke of fate. The teams affected by such tragedies, however, paint an inspiring picture of rising from the ashes, as most carried on after the tragedies, and even went on to scale greater heights. Here are some of the worst aviation tragedies involving sports teams, in rough chronological order.
Worst Aviation Tragedies Involving Sports Teams
La Manche Air Disaster
★ 8 November 1948
Team: Czechoslovakia men’s national ice hockey team
The Czechoslovakian men’s ice hockey team were due to play a match in London’s Wembley stadium, and the players had departed for England in two batches. 8 players had gone ahead a day earlier than the other 6, who were supposed to join them in London.
The 8 players that had reached London had already completed the scheduled match, when they were told that the plane carrying the other 6 players had vanished somewhere over the English Channel. Little is known about the location of the crashed plane, or the cause of the crash.
Superga Air Disaster
★ 4 May 1949
Team: Torino AC
All but one senior member of the Turin-based soccer club were killed in the Superga disaster near their hometown, Turin. The team was returning home after playing a game in Lisbon, when it crashed into the Superga hill, killing all passengers, including players, management team, journalists, and the crew.
The Torino team in this period was one of the best in the world. Known as Il Grande Torino, the team had won 4 successive Italian league titles, and were leading the table at the time of the crash. Such was the dominance of the team that the Italian national team at the time had 10 Torino players! Both Torino and their opponents for the remaining 4 matches of the season fielded youth sides (respecting the tragedy), and Torino went on to win the league title.
Sverdlovsk Air Disaster
★ 5 January 1950
Team: VVS Moscow
VVS Moscow were the team representing the Russian Air Force in the Russian ice hockey league. They were on their way to play a game against Dynamo Moscow, when their plane crashed during landing, amid terrible weather conditions. 11 players, a club doctor, and a masseur were killed.
VVS Moscow finished fourth that season, and won the next three titles.
Munich Air Disaster
★ 6 February 1958
Team: Manchester United
One of the most lamented soccer tragedies in England, the 1958 Munich tragedy killed 8 Manchester United players along with 3 members of the coaching squad, and rendered 2 other players unable to play professionally. The team, known as ‘Busby Babes’, were among the strongest English teams, and were tipped to achieve the first ever League-Cup-European Cup treble in European history.
The team was on their way back from Belgrade, having won the quarterfinal of the European Cup on aggregate against Red Star Belgrade, when they landed in Munich to refuel. After two takeoff attempts were aborted because of engine issues, the plane couldn’t achieve takeoff velocity on the third attempt due to the buildup of slush on the runway. The plane barged past the fence and collided with a nearby house.
Matt Busby, the manager, rebuilt the team around the core of the survivors of the tragedy, and they won England’s first European Cup in 1968, just 10 years after the tragedy.
Øresund Air Crash
★ 16 July 1960
Team: Denmark national soccer team hopefuls
A plane carrying 8 Danish youth players and senior team hopefuls crashed into the Øresund, killing all the players on the spot. The players were traveling to a trial match, and were looking to get into the national squad for the upcoming Olympics football tournament. The pilot survived, but had to have a leg amputated.
Following the tragedy, the Danish authorities wanted to withdraw from the Olympics, but they eventually did participate, and finished second!
Cal Poly Air Disaster
★ 29 October 1960
Team: California Polytechnic State University Football
The Cal Poly football team lost 16 players, when the chartered plane carrying them crashed upon takeoff, breaking in two and catching fire. The pilot lost control of the plane during takeoff, due to bad weather conditions and a drop in power from the engines.
The crash was investigated, and it was found that not only was the plane overloaded, but the pilot was operating with a revoked license, pending appeal. Consequently, the company that leased the aircraft, the Arctic Pacific Company, was banned from chartering airplanes.
Sabena Flight 548 Crash
★ 15 February 1961
Team: US Figure Skating Team
The US national team was heading to the 1961 World Championships, when their plane crashed near Brussels, Belgium, tragically killing the entire 18-member team. All 72 people on board were killed, as well as a farmer, who was hit by debris from the crash.
This was the first ever fatal crash on a Boeing 707, except in testing. The cause of the crash has never been conclusively determined.
The US team was so dominant in the international arena, that the World Championships, which were scheduled to be held in Prague, were canceled!
★ 26 September 1969
Team: The Strongest
A Bolivian soccer club named The Strongest was terribly hit by this crash. The team was returning home after a friendly match in Santa Cruz, when their plane crashed around Viloco, killing everyone aboard.
16 players and 3 members of the coaching staff of The Strongest lost their lives in this crash.
Silver Plume Air Disaster
★ 2 October 1970
Team: Wichita State University Football
The varsity football team lost nearly its entire senior playing squad en route to a match against Utah State University. 14 players and the coach were killed, when their plane crashed into a mountain near Silver Plume.
The reserve players and other staff used another plane, which reached their destination safe and sound. The pilot of the plane carrying the senior squad changed the flightplan to accommodate a more scenic route, and subsequently bought the navigation charts for the alternate route at a refueling stop. But he didn’t have time to study the treacherous terrain in the region before setting off again. Moreover, the plane was overloaded. As a result, the driver mistakenly maneuvered it into a closed ravine with not enough space to turn around.
The game was canceled, and the two teams never met again until Wichita withdrew from college football in 1986.
Andes Air Disaster
★ 13 October 1972
Team: Old Christians
The Uruguayan rugby club, Old Christians, suffered the most horrible tragedy of all. This air crash took the lives of 11 players and the team physician, and gained notoriety due to the gruesome conditions faced by the survivors.
En route to Santiago to play a match, the plane carrying the team, coaching staff, and family members of the team, crashed into the Andes due to poor weather conditions and miscalculation by the pilot.
29 people, including the crew, were killed by either the crash itself, an avalanche, and starvation and malnutrition.
The survivors had no means of communication, no heat, and very limited food supplies, which they had foraged from the plane itself. In the end, the survivors had to resort to eating the flesh of the dead passengers in order to survive the cold, high-altitude conditions. 16 of the 45 people originally on board, including 5 players, were rescued after spending an incredible 72 days in unimaginable conditions.
Embassy Hill F1 Team Crash
★ 29 November 1975
Team: Embassy Hill
Embassy Hill, headed by the legendary driver Graham Hill, was shut down after this terrible accident, which claimed the lives of both their drivers (including Hill himself), the team manager, the designer, and two mechanics.
Graham Hill was piloting the plane himself, carrying the bulk of his team back home from the Circuit Paul Ricard in France. Near Arkley in Greater London, the plane hit a tree near a golf course, owing to thick fog, and crashed, killing all 6 passengers on the spot.
Evansville Air Disaster
★ 13 December 1977
Team: University of Evansville Men’s Basketball
The University of Evansville lost 19 team members in this terrible crash. The team were heading to Nashville for a game, when their plane crashed after takeoff, with the pilot losing control. The team lost all but one senior members in the crash.
In a tragic twist of fate, the sole remaining team member (who wasn’t on the flight) was hit and killed by a drunk driver just two weeks after the plane crash.
Dniprodzerzhynsk Air Disaster
★ 11 August 1979
Team: Pakhtakor Tashkent
The Uzbek (part of USSR at the time of the tragedy) soccer club Pakhtakor Tashkent lost nearly their entire squad in a mid-air collision, the only one in this list.
The collision involved two Tupolev Tu-134 aircraft, and killed all passengers on both the planes. This included 17 Pakhtakor players and their coaching staff. The planes were flying on a collision course, which was noticed by air control. The ensuing communication, however, didn’t reach the planes, and the two collided at a height of nearly 26,000 ft (7,900 m).
Warsaw Air Disaster
★ 14 March 1980
Team: US National Boxing Team
The entire US contingent on the plane, 14 in total, was killed. Notable boxers such as Bobby Czyz and Sal Cenicola had stayed behind due to injuries, and thus, escaped the tragedy.
The crash was initially confusing and a cause could not be found. Later, it was determined that one of the turbines had broken and its debris had damaged one of the engines, the rudder, and communication equipment.
Alianza Lima Air Disaster
★ 8 December 1987
Team: Alianza Lima
Peruvian soccer club Alianza Lima lost much of the entire senior team―16 players―and the coaching staff in this crash. The club was returning from a Peruvian league match in a plane owned by the Peruvian Navy, who initially concealed the cause of the crash and banned private investigations into the matter.
During the landing, the pilot radioed that he wasn’t sure if the plane’s landing gear was ready, since the indicator for the same was broken. The plane flew by the airport and the availability of the landing gear was confirmed. As the pilot returned for the landing, the plane swooped too low and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
The team carried on for the rest of the season with youth players and players loaned from other clubs, but were seriously hit by the tragedy and only won their next title in 1997.
Paramaribo Air Disaster
★ 7 June 1989
Team: Exhibition team of Surinamese soccer players playing professionally in the Netherlands.
Surinamese players plying their trade in the Netherlands had formed an exhibition team, known as the Colorful 11, to play friendly matches in Suriname. They had played the Surinamese champions in 1986, and were to play again in the country in 1989.
The crash was attributed to negligence and incompetence on the part of the crew. The crew tried to land the plane despite not having the correct distance measuring equipment, and inadvertently flew the plane too low. This sparked several alarms, all of which the crew ignored. Investigation after the crash also revealed that the pilot was older than the maximum age allowed to captain the flight, and his last test had been conducted on a much simpler, piston-engined aircraft!
15 players lost their lives, but notable Surinamese-Dutch players such as Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, and Aron Winter had not been given permission by their clubs to participate in the tour, and thus escaped the tragedy.
Libreville Air Disaster
★27 April 1993
Team: Zambia national soccer team
This crash killed the entire Zambian team on the plane―18 players―en route to Senegal for a FIFA World Cup qualifier. The plane belonged to the Zambian Air Force, who had arranged the trip.
As the plane took off from a refueling stop, in Libreville, Gabon, the left engine caught fire and shut down. The pilot then mistakenly shut the right engine, cutting all power to the plane. The plane consequently fell out of the sky, and into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Gabon. The pilot’s error was claimed to be due to a faulty indicator switch, and fatigue.
Oklahoma State University Air Crash
★ 27 January 2001
Team: Oklahoma State University Men’s Basketball
The Oklahoma varsity basketball team lost 2 players and 6 members of the coaching staff in this crash.
The team was returning from a match with the Colorado Buffaloes, when the plane ran into a snowstorm. The weather conditions proved to be too much for the pilot, and the plane crashed near Strasburg, Colorado.
Martinsville Air Disaster
★ 24 October 2004
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
A chartered plane carrying top officials of the Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR team crashed into the Blue Mountain while en route to the Martinsville race in the Nextel Cup Series, killing the president, general manager, and chief engine designer of the team. All 10 passengers on the plane were killed.
The crash was attributed to pilot error. The plane had failed to achieve sufficient height to pass over the mountain, and instead dropped its height, crashing and exploding into the Blue Mountain.
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl Plane Crash
★ 7 September 2011
Team: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl
This is the worst aviation disaster involving a sports team since the turn of the millennium. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, an ice hockey team in the Kontinental Hockey League, lost its entire senior roster, as well as four youth players, in this terrible crash―37 members, including staff, in total.
The crash was attributed to pilot error. The copilot had suffered from a nerve disease, and mistakenly applied the brakes (not sensing that his foot was on the pedal) before the plane was airborne. The plane exceeded the length of the runway before taking off, hit a tower mast, and crashed a mile and a half from the airport.
These were some of the worst instances of members of a sports team being killed in airplane accidents. Sport stars may live in a glitzy world beyond our reach, but such accidents transcend rivalries and competitions, and remind us, in the most tragic manner possible, of the very human nature of sports.