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WSU Plane Crash Survivor Embarks On A Journey To Honor His Fallen Teammates

On October 2, 1970, a plane carrying the Wichita State football team crashed in Colorado. The plane hit the side of a mountain and 31 people were killed. Rick Stephens, one of the survivors, rode his bike from Cessna Stadium on the WSU campus to the site of the crash to mark the 44th anniversary of the tragedy. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson has more…

Rick Stephens played right tackle for the Wichita State University football team. He was number 72. He was 22 years old and a six-foot-tw0, 220 pound senior.

“I remember that there were a lot of great kids and certainly those individuals that were lost," Stephens says. "I always say that the world is a less enjoyable and less considerate world because of the lack of those individuals who were taken. All of them.”

Credit kpts.org
Shocker football player Rick Stephens

Cessna Stadium is the former home of Shocker football. Stephens sits in the stands, looking over the field he once shared with teammates, coaches, and fans. Flag separating the seating sections flap in the wind.

“I played in the first game when the stadium underwent the initial renovation through Cessna," he says. "As a coincidence we were able to defeat Utah State in that first game in 1969 and when the accident occurred we were on our way to Utah to play Utah State. We certainly will never know what would've happened in that game but I'm sure they would've been prepared for us. They were not too happy getting beaten here but we were quite ecstatic."

He says the Shocker football team wasn’t particularly good, but they were a bonded group.

“We had, I think, a pretty good stable team relationship," he says. "In those days, it had been many years since Wichita State was really successful in football and we were not that successful, but we tried to hang together. And it was difficult losing consistently like we had in 1969, which was my first season here.”  

The Day of the Crash

Today, at 66 years old, Stephens is still athletic. His hair is graying, but his smile is warm and friendly. After more than four decades, Stephens clearly remembers the morning of October 2nd, as the team left Kansas in hopes to, once again, beat Utah State.

“Beautiful day - wind was not blowing," he says. "I remember walking over from Fairmont Towers and just thinking what a nice, cool day. People were in pretty good spirits. We came over to the stadium, loaded up on the bus and headed out to the airport. There were two planes, the gold plane and the black plane. The gold plane--the one I was on--was the first team."

Both planes landed in Denver to refuel. The team had lunch. They then boarded their separate planes and headed to Utah. The pilots on Stephen’s plane, the gold plane, took an unplanned route.

Credit kpts.org
A Wichita State football helmet at the site of the plane crash.

"The black plane went north and crossed the Continental Divide up in Wyoming where it's about 7000 feet," Stephens says. "The pilots in our plane decided that they would go straight into the mountains were it's 14,000 feet. Ultimately I think that was the cause of the accident. The plane was not capable of gaining the type of altitude needed to get over that. And consequently we crashed. I'll always remember that I was sitting right over the wing and looking out of the window as the foothills began to rise. I saw old mining equipment and old mine shafts up above where we were flying. We were flying right over I-70 toward what would then be the Eisenhower Tunnel.”

Stephens says most of his teammates were sleeping. Out of curiosity and concern, he walked up to the open cockpit, something he says the players often did.

“As I approached the cockpit, I could see nothing but green in front of us and they had topographical maps out," he says. "I could tell that there was an issue with whether or not we would be able to make it. One pilot said to the other 'How high is that point?' He answered, '14,000.' The other pilot said, 'We can't make that.' For some reason, at that point I turned and headed back toward the cabin area.”

And the pilots were right--they couldn’t make it. Seconds later the plane crashed into the east slope of Mount Trelease, 1,600 feet below its summit. Upon impact, Stephens was thrown through the front of the aircraft. He was too injured to walk.

“I was spared the horror of being inside the airplane and having to make a decision . . . about . . . trying to help individuals who were trapped underneath the chairs and debris that had broken away or getting out. And as the plane caught fire, those individuals, the other seven, had to make a choice . . . and they did.”

The plane carried 37 passengers and a crew of three; 29 people were killed at the scene and two later died of their injuries. The co-pilot and eight football players survived, including Rick Stephens.

The Memorial '70 Bike Ride

Credit Karen Baird
Rick Stephens prepares to head off of on his ride.

To remember the players who lost their lives, Stephens will--for the second time--try to rode his bike 550 miles from Cessna Stadium to Silver Plume, Colorado last week. The ride serves as a fundraiser for the memorial scholarship that serves to help the families of those who were killed. An initial fund set up immediately following the tragedy helped many of those who suffered receive an education at WSU. Both of Stephen’s children attended school through the fund, and he says this is his way to help others benefit from the scholarship.

“But more importantly, it's a way to focus, just for a brief time, on that terrible incident that happened 44 years ago and the people who were lost," he says. "We never want those who were left behind to think that the ones they lost have been forgotten. That's my primary purpose.”

Stephens rode his bike to the roadside memorial for his teammates along I-70 just before the Eisenhower Tunnel. From there, he and his family, and others who were affected by the crash hiked the nearly vertical path up the mountain. They marked the wreckage with small yellow flags printed with the names of those who were killed, announcing each person's name as the flag was placed in the ground. Flags for husbands and wives, best friends and roommates were placed small clusters among the debris. A surprising amount of wreckage still remains in the clearing made by the plane.

Credit Abigail Wilson
Yellow flags stand in the debris at the site of the crash to honor those who lost their lives October 2, 1970.

 “The trees haven’t grown back and you can see where the plane came in and began to clip the trees. But of course, the vegetation is starting to grow back. There are some major pieces of the landing gear, the front landing gear, still there, and shards of torn and melted aluminum. But there's quite a bit of debris. Most of it's jagged and torn. It will foster an imagination pretty quickly.”

A memorial service for those who lost their lives will be held on the Wichita State University campus today at 9 a.m.

Credit kpts.org
The 1970 Wichita State Football team.

Credit Abigail Wilson

Credit Abigail Wilson

Black & Gold - KPTS Documentary on Wichita State University Plane Crash in 1970