The airplane crash that killed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne on March 31, 1931, has been dubbed the most famous air mishap in Kansas history.
We recently joined 200 Notre Dame faithful and other interested parties in a Chase County pasture near the tiny berg of Bazaar to observe the crash’s 85th anniversary.
As the story goes, Rockne was a passenger on TWA Flight 599 that morning aboard a Fokker F10-A when he and seven other passengers encountered fog and freezing drizzle while crossing the Flint Hills. Following radio contact with an airport in the vicinity, the pilot was contemplating a returning to the Kansas City Airport where the flight had departed. When an air traffic control tower in Wichita reported clear skies in that city, the pilot decided to forge ahead.
The ice on the right wing literally ripped it from the plane and soon the aircraft was on the ground in the pasture where the crew and passengers were thrown from the craft and killed instantly.
The crash site is not visible from Highway 177, but passerbys will note a well-worn driveway on the west side of the road, 6 miles south of Bazaar. The driveway is approximately 2 miles in length and over a hill, where visitors can see a monument at the crash site which was erected in 1935.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was in its infancy at that time and dispatched personnel to Chase County to investigate the cause of the crash, but not before souvenir hunters had helped themselves to enough airplane parts to stock a few museums.
As the story is told, in the week following the crash 1,500 cars braved the muddy pasture to view the crash site.
So, it comes as no surprise that the crash produced its share of stories worth repeating. When FAA investigators noted the plane’s propeller was missing, they canvassed area ranches to determine if someone might have inside knowledge of its whereabouts.
On a visit to an area farm, they stepped into a living room and there before their eyes was the plane’s propeller hanging above a doorway.
Notre Dame took note of the occasion, and Jack Swarbrick, the school’s athletic director penned a lengthy letter which was read aloud during this year’s memorial tribute.
Rockne’s look-alike grandson, Nils Rockne, spoke with emotion about a grandfather he never met. Nils’ father, Jack Rockne, was a mere 5-year-old child when the 43-year old Notre Dame skipper was killed.
Also in attendance was the Heathman family. On the day of the crash, Easter Heathman, then a 13-year-old farm boy, heard the plane cross his family’s farm that morning and when the engines were silenced at 10:48 a.m., he joined his father and two brothers as the first to observe the crash site. Easter died in 2008, after giving more than 800 tours of the crash site in the remaining 77 years of his lifetime.
Easter’s son, Tom, a Chase County farmer, said that debris from the crash continues to reach the surface of the ground following heavy rains.
During a luncheon, which followed at the Bazaar School, Jerry McKenna delivered a speech worth remembering on Rockne’s life.
McKenna graduated from Notre Dame in 1962 and, following a career in the armed forces, took up sculpturing. During the past 20 years has sculpted Rockne’s likeness for statutes seen throughout the world. His other work includes sculpting other Notre Dame coaches Lou Holtz, Ara Parseghian and Frank Leahy.
During this time, he traced Rockne’s life story from his birth in Voss, Norway, to his death in Kansas. While in Rockne’s hometown, he dropped off a statue of the Notre Dame Coach at his birthplace.
The Chase County Museum in Cottonwood Falls got into the act on this day while unveiling a Rockne exhibit, complete with actual photos of the crash site.
Also, on display was a meticulously restored 1932 Rockne Car, on loan from the Rockne family, which was manufactured at the Studebaker plant in South Bend, Indiana.
Rockne was killed 27 days following his 43rd birthday. He spent his formative years in Chicago and, following high school, spent four years as an employee of the Post Office before entering Notre Dame as a 21-year old freshman and was a star player on the school’s football team.
Graduating Magna Cum Laude with a degree in chemistry, he joined the faculty while serving as an assistant football coach and was elevated to the top job in 1918. In the 13 years to follow, Rockne amassed a record of 105-12-5, good for an .881 winning percentage, including five undefeated seasons, a record that has not been achieved before or since.
Humorist Will Rogers, who was destined to perish in a plane crash barely four years later, was quick to eulogize his friend Rockne: “You (Knute Rockne) died a national hero, Notre Dame was your address, but every gridiron in America was your home."
Richard Shank is the external affairs representative for Hutchinson Regional Medical Center. Email: email@example.com