Famous Air Crash Victims - Part 3: Sportsmen Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Famous Air Crash Victims - Part 3: Sportsmen

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Famous Air Crash Victims

Part 1: Aviators | Part 2: Musicians | Part 3: Sportsmen | Part 4: Politicians

As with musicians, professional sportsmen and women spend much of their lives travelling to and from events, and in the same way, we have lost some of the finest in air accidents. When sportsmen wear the national vest, or when teams are involved, the loss is felt by the whole nation.

Il Grande Torino

In recent years, Italian football club Torino has been overshadowed by its illustrious neighbour Juventus. In the 1940s, however, the roles were reversed, and as AC Torino, the team had won the Serie A championship for five consecutive seasons between 1943 and 1949, earning themselves the nickname 'Il Grande Torino'.

On 4 May, 1949, the team was returning from a friendly match against Benfica in Lisbon, when its Italian Airlines Fiat G212CP encountered a thunderstorm and poor visibility on the approach to Turin. The plane lost height and crashed after clipping a wall close to the Basilica in the town of Superga, killing all 31 on board. This included the entire AC Torino squad, save one player who was injured and so didn't travel.

Manchester United

In the late 1950s, football manager Matt Busby had developed a team of young stars at Manchester United, which became known as the 'Busby Babes'. On 6 February, 1958, this team was to suffer tragedy in an accident known since as the Munich Air Disaster.

The team was flying home from a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade, which United had just won on aggregate after a 3-3 draw. After a scheduled refuelling stop in Munich, the plane, a BEA-chartered Airspeed Ambassador AS-57, set off again in a snowstorm. Twice aborting the take-off due to engine problems, the pilot tried for a third time, but was unable to gain the necessary speed due to slush on the runway. Failing to gain altitude, the plane crashed into the airport perimeter fence, and then into an unoccupied house nearby. 23 of the 44 on board were killed, including eight players, one of which was the young sensation Duncan Edwards, feted by many as the best player the game had ever seen. Also killed were the club secretary, chief coach, trainer, and eight journalists. Busby was critically injured but eventually recovered to rebuild his team in the following years. Other survivors included Bobby Charlton, who went on to become one of football's greats, featuring in England's 1966 World Cup winning side.

The 1958 Egyptian Fencing Team

On 14 August, 1958, a Lockheed Constellation operated by KLM took off from Shannon, Ireland, following a stopover en route between Amsterdam and Gander, Newfoundland. 100 miles off the west coast of Ireland, the plane suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure, believed to be a malfunctioning propeller, which may have sheared off and caused the fuel tanks to explode. Ditching into the Atlantic, all 99 passengers and crew lost their lives. This included six members of the Egyptian fencing team, who were on their way to an international meeting in Philadelphia.

The 1961 US Figure Skating Team

On 15 February, 1961, the entire US national figure-skating team was flying from New York to Brussels - the middle leg of a journey taking them from the North American Championships in Philadelphia to the World Championships in Prague. On approach, after circling the airport, the Sabena Boeing 707 suffered a catastrophic failure of the flying controls, causing it to crash nose-first into farmland. All 72 on board lost their lives, including skaters, family members and coaches.

Rafael Osuna

When tennis star Rafael Osuna1 beat American Frank Froehling in straight sets to win the 1963 US Open, he became a national hero in his native Mexico. He also achieved a world number one ranking, and led Mexico to a number of unlikely victories in Davis Cup matches, including reaching the final in 1962.

Osuna lost his life on 4 June, 1969, on a flight from Mexico City, when pilot error caused his Mexican Airlines Boeing 727 to hit high ground on the approach to Monterey airport. All 79 on board were killed.

Rocky Marciano

Italian-American World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Marciano2 was arguably the greatest boxer of all time, retiring with a record of 49 professional victories and no defeats. To date, he is the only World Heavyweight Champion to have remained undefeated in his professional career.

Retiring from the ring in 1956, Marciano went on to run a number of business ventures, as well as performing some refereeing and commentating. He lost his life at the age of 45, flying home to Des Moines, Iowa to give a speech at a function, and unknown to him, to attend a surprise birthday party. Taking off at night and in rain, the pilot of the Cessna 172H had difficulty climbing, and tried to make an emergency landing at Newton, Iowa. The plane hit a lone oak tree two miles short of the runway, killing Marciano and two others. The pilot was not qualified to fly on instruments.

Graham Hill

To date the only driver to have won the Indy 500, Le Mans and the Formula 1 Driver's Championship, Britain's Graham Hill can be considered one of motor-racing's greatest. On 29 November, 1975, only four months after his retirement from the driver's seat, he was flying his Piper Aztec from France to a party in London. On board were members of his Embassy Hill racing team. After encountering thick fog in the Elstree area, Hill became disorientated, lost altitude and crashed into trees on Arkely Golf Course, Hertfordshire. All six on board lost their lives.

21 years after Hill's death, his son Damon went on to win the Formula 1 Driver's Championship.

The 1976 Cuban Fencing Team

On 6 October 1976, 24 members of the Cuban National Fencing Team, many of them teenagers, were returning from Bridgetown, Barbados to Havana, having swept the board at the Central American and Caribbean Fencing Championships. Nine minutes after the Cuban Airlines McDonnell Douglas DC-8 had taken off, a bomb exploded in a rear lavatory, followed by another bomb moments later. The pilots had no option but to ditch into the Caribbean Sea. All 73 aboard were killed.

Four anti-Castro Venezuelans were subsequently arrested for the crime, and some have served jail sentences; two are currently in exile in the US. Cuba maintains that this act of terrorism was orchestrated by the CIA, and indeed the CIA has admitted that it had some prior knowledge of the plot.

The 1980 US Amateur Boxing Team

22 members of the US amateur boxing team were among 87 who died when their Polish Airlines Ilyushin IL-62 from New York crashed on the approach to Warsaw's Okecie Airport. The landing gear had not gone down, and when the pilot attempted an emergency recovery procedure, an engine failed, causing the plane to crash half a mile from the runway.

The team was highly regarded and tipped to be successful at the forthcoming Moscow Olympics, but as it transpired, the US was to boycott the games, in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Polish pop singer Anna Jantar was also among the dead that day.

The 1993 Zambian National Football Team

On 27 April 1993, a Zambian Air Force de Havilland Buffalo was flying the national football squad from Lusaka to Dakar, Senegal for a World Cup qualifying fixture. Shortly after taking off from a stopover in Libreville, Gabon, one of the engines caught fire. The fatigued pilot then shut down the wrong engine, causing the plane to crash into the Atlantic, killing all 30 on board, including 18 footballers.

Despite the tragedy, the hastily-rebuilt national side succeeded in reaching the final of the African Nations Cup the following year, where they were narrowly beaten by Nigeria.

Matthew Harding

In the mid-1990s, before the days of Roman Abramovich, West London football club Chelsea had another multi-million pound backer in the form of insurance tycoon Matthew Harding. Despite a stormy boardroom relationship with club chairman Ken Bates, Harding's millions helped restore the team to one of the best in Europe, attracting big-name signings such as Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola.

On the night of 22 October, 1996, Harding and three friends were returning to London after watching Chelsea play a League Cup match at Bolton, when their Squirrel helicopter crashed into farmland near Middlewich, Cheshire, killing all five on board. The AAIB3 investigation found that the pilot was unqualified to fly on instruments, and had lost control after flying off course.

At the end of the 1996 - 97 season, Chelsea's new-look side won the FA Cup, their first major trophy in 26 years.

Payne Stewart

US golfer Payne Stewart4 was well known on the professional circuit for his flamboyant dress sense, often appearing in patterned plus fours and a tam o'shanter. He was no fool on the course though, winning three majors, including the US Open twice, and representing his country five times in the Ryder Cup between 1987 and 1999.

It was on 25 October, 1999, one month after the last of these Ryder Cup appearances, a victory for the US. Stewart was a passenger on a Gates Learjet 35 flight between Orlando, Florida, and Dallas, Texas, when it suffered a pressurisation failure which asphyxiated all six on board. The plane was intercepted by the US Air Force, and continued on autopilot for 1,500 miles before crashing in a field at Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Hanse Cronje

South African cricket captain Hanse Cronje5 was one of the finest players his country ever produced, and one of the best all-rounders of recent years. His captaincy record of 99 wins and one draw from 138 One Day Internationals brought pride to a South African nation recovering from the stigma of international isolation during the Apartheid era. However, Cronje's reputation was in tatters following a high-profile match-fixing scandal in April 2000, which led to him receiving a life ban from the sport.

Two years later, on 1 June, 2002, Cronje missed an internal South African Airlines flight from Bloemfontein to George, and instead cadged a lift on a Hawker Siddeley HS-748 postal service cargo plane, on which he was the only passenger. Bad weather at George airport and problems with the navigational equipment forced the pilots to miss a landing, and while circling, the plane crashed on the nearby Outeniqua mountains. Cronje and the two pilots were killed.

Steve Hislop

UK Motorcyclist Steve Hislop6 is widely regarded as one of the most talented, if inconsistent racers the UK has ever produced. Twice winner of the British Superbike championship, in 1995 and 2002, and winner of numerous Isle of Man TT races, he competed at the highest level in one of the most dangerous of sports. Indeed, Hislop broke his neck at Brands Hatch in 2001, and suffered multiple fractures racing at Rockingham one year later, but he was to lose his life indulging in his new passion, helicopters.

Father-of-two Hislop had recently qualified as a pilot, and on 30 July, 2003, was returning alone from Hawick, Scotland to High Wycombe, Bucks, after visiting friends. Low cloud in the Scottish Borders forced him to take a westerly route, and it is assumed that his Robinson helicopter suffered a rapid descent after entering cloud, before it crashed on remote moorland near Teviothead.

Colin McRae

On 15 September, 2007, another Scottish motorsport champion lost his life in another helicopter crash. This time it was the sad fate of rally driver Colin McRae7, widely regarded as one of the most talented drivers in the sport's history. McRae won many fans through his aggressive risk-taking style, one which ensured he would finish the course quickest, if he finished it at all. He secured one World Rally Championship title for the Subaru team in 1995, and also licensed a successful series of computer games.

McRae, his five-year-old son Johnny and two family friends were on a short flight to visit a friend on a farm not far from McRae's home, near Lanark. The Eurocopter Squirrel helicopter, piloted by McRae crashed into woodland and burst into flames, killing all four. The reasons for the crash are not clear. The accident investigation reported that the vehicle had deviated from the expected flight path and crashed while the pilot was executing a difficult manoeuvre. One possible cause cited was a phenomenon in this helicopter known as 'servo transparency', a situation which can give the pilot the impression that the controls have jammed.

And Finally

For the record, this section lists a few of the lesser-known sporting stars caught up in some of the more newsworthy air incidents.

  • The 'Old Christians' Rugby Team - The old boys' team from Stella Maris College, Montevideo, Uruguay was caught up in what must be one of the most disturbing of all air-related incidents. On Friday 13 October, 1972, their Uruguayan Air Force Fairchild Hiller FH-227D was flying them over the Andes for a fixture in Santiago, Chile, when it encountered turbulence on descent. Crashing into a mountainside, the plane finally came to rest in a remote snow-covered area. Of the 45 on board, 16 survived for 72 days, long after search and rescue missions had been called off. The key to their survival was their decision to eat the bodies of the dead, some of whom were their friends and team-mates. If you can bear it, then their story has been published in the 1974 book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, by Piers Paul Read, and the 1993 film 'Alive: The Miracle of the Andes'.

  • Len Koenecke - The Brooklyn Dodgers outfield baseball player died on 17 September, 1935, in what must be one of the earliest incidences of the 'air rage' phenomenon. Dropped by his team coach and thrown off the team's American Airlines flight for drunkenness following a fixture in Detroit, Koenecke hired a private plane to take him to Buffalo. On the flight he drunkenly tried to wrestle the controls away from the pilot. He eventually died in a different kind of air crash - the crash of the pilot hitting him over the head with a fire extinguisher.

1Born Rafael Herrera Osuna on 15 September, 1938, in Mexico City.2Born Rocco Francis Marchegiano on 1 September, 1923, in Brockton, Massachusetts, USA.3Air Accident Investigation Branch.4Born William Payne Stewart on 30 January, 1957, in Springfield, Missouri, USA.5Born Wessel Johannes Cronje on 25 September, 1969, in Bloemfontein, SA.6Born Steven Hislop on 11 January, 1962, in Hawick, Scotland.7Born Colin Steele McRae on 5 August, 1968, in Lanark, Scotland.

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