A week ago today, and 79 years, the coach stood frustrated at Kansas City Municipal Airport after missing a reunion with his two sons. He boarded the plane to California, there to consult on a movie commemorating his career, and would never see his sons again.
A few hours later, Knute Rockne and five other passengers and two crewmen of the Fokker 999E plummeted into the Kansas prairie and were killed instantly.
By some early accounts, a freak storm caused the plane to crash. Those of us who've lived in Kansas for a couple of years wouldn't doubt it, especially in that era of aviation. But further investigation concluded that the crash was caused by the catastrophic failure of a wing strut on the Fokker 10AF Trimotor plane.
Regardless of the cause, the result was a scorched spot in the Kansas Flint Hills. You can imagine what it must have been like for the first people on the scene. Weather probably much like today's weather. Cool morning, moist grass. The smell of gasoline and hot oil hanging in the air.
It was a rather gruesome tourist attraction for weeks. Kansans from the area, unfortunately, had little respect for the deceased or for Rockne's surviving sons, 14-year old Billy and 12-year-old Knute Jr., who had returned that day to Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City after an Easter vacation in Florida. Newspapers reported people slogging their way through muddy fields to the crash site to walk away with various chunks of debris as grisly souvenirs -- a chunk of rubber from the plane's tire or a piece of its rudder. There's even one account of a person claiming to have found a gold tooth at the crash the site.
In the years since, the sensation of the incident has worn off and the site has been treated with more respect. A small, tasteful memorial on the site has been maintained for decades by Easter Heatherman who, at the age of 13, was one of the first people to arrive at the crash to render aide. And the Matfield Green travel center along I-35 also has an exhibit commemorating the accident.
While tragic, the resulting investigation into the crash revealed a flaw in the wing spars caused by moisture weakening the wood laminate. All US airlines at the time were forced to ground their Fokker FA10s and many were discovered to have the same flaw. No doubt many more lives were saved.
Also, the intense public interest in the accident forced the Aeronautics Branch of the US Department of Commerce (forerunner of today's FAA) to abandon its policy of keeping the results of aircraft accident investigations secret.
tagged: Kansas, Knute Rockne, Fokker, airplane, crash, Flint Hills, Matfield Green