50 years ago, plane crash killed 16 Cal Poly football players

Although tired and discouraged after a 50-6 rout at the hands of nationally ranked Bowling Green earlier in the day, the Cal Poly Mustang football team was trying to hide its nervousness with small talk and jokes as it prepared for takeoff from Toledo’s airport 50 years ago today.

A dismal fog blanketed the tarmac — the worst fog the airport had seen in 10 months — and the control tower checked with pilot Donald Chesher.

As Life magazine later reported, although Chesher could only see about 500 feet —“nowhere near minimum takeoff requirements that most airlines observe” — the pilot (who was flying on a suspended license but allowed to pilot pending an appeal), said he was good to go.

His flight plan was in order, and the tower lacked the authority to stop him.

So at 10:02 p.m., the overloaded World War II surplus twin engine C-46 began its taxi down the runway; players held crossed fingers over their heads. “We’ll give it the old college try,” someone shouted.

Cuesta College President Gil Stork, a San Luis Obispo born-and-bred young man of 19 at the time, was sitting in a seat over the left wing when the plane’s left engine quit at about 100 feet. The Arctic Pacific Airlines-owned plane dipped sharply to its left and nose-dived into the runway.

Sixteen players, four passengers and the two pilots lost their lives when the plane broke in two on impact. The cabin forward of the wings exploded into flames; the tail section, spared the fire, allowed 19 others to survive, albeit with horrible injuries that still dog some of those survivors. Stork, who played center on the team, doesn’t remember the crash itself, or how he was thrown from the plane, but he remembers waking up on the tarmac with back, hip and leg injuries.

Oddly, his first thought as he regained consciousness and ran his tongue over his teeth was that his mother was going to kill him. She’d always worried that he’d lose his teeth playing football, and now here he was with chipped teeth after what was, at the time, the worst sports team disaster in aviation history.

With just a few days to go before the November elections, my folks were hosting a party for candidates in our home. So our sitter, Jane Nettleship Maxwell, took my brother Craig and me to the movies that night.

It was around 8 p.m. when the house lights came on in the Fremont Theater and Vaughn Tailor walked on stage to tell us that the Mustangs’ plane had crashed on takeoff in Toledo, and mistakenly said that all but one person had perished.

As most people can vividly remember what they were doing when President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, I’ll never forget that moment of complete quiet and then a siren going off in my right ear. It was Jane. Her father, legendary Telegram-Tribune sports editor Johnny Nettleship, was on that flight.

As word of the tragedy spread that evening, it seemed like every family in San Luis Obispo was glued to their radios — the source for breaking news at the time. The community grieved as one.

The human dimension of the tragedy was humbling. Some of the players were married, while other players were fathers. Robert Kennedy, a journalism professor at Poly who seven years later would become the university’s president, took it upon himself to notify the next of kin of their losses.

As he noted in a 1985 interview with the Telegram-Tribune, “It was one of the most nightmarish, heart-rending tasks I’ve ever attempted. The worst part of it was calling the parents, most of who didn’t even know there was a wreck.”

Assistant coach Sheldon Harden, who died almost six years ago, heroically went back into the broken, burning plane to retrieve players. He later had the gruesome task of identifying badly burned bodies, often only recognizing who the players were by the distinctive shoes or ring they may have been wearing.

Tackle Rod Baughn had plans to marry his sweetheart, Sandy Jackson, in a month. She had already bought her wedding dress. Larry Austin and my Minor League baseball coach, Joe Copeland, were lifelong friends who were born two days apart in Bakersfield. Both died in the crash.

Johnny Nettleship had been typing up the day’s game. When the plane hit, his typewriter was crushed into his chest. His eyesight was knocked askew from the force of the impact, and he suffered internal injuries and broken bones that left him in the hospital for 5 1⁄2 months, daughter Jane never leaving his side while he convalesced.

Stork suffered massive injuries that still haunt him; he’s had one hip replaced twice, the other three times. I remember him wearing shorts while umpiring in Little League after the crash — a chunk of his left shin the size of a zucchini had been gouged out by the impact.

But Stork, like many of those who didn’t die, also grappled with existential angst, survivor guilt.

“For five or six years, I was in misery,” he said as we walked around the Mustang Memorial outside Alex G. Spanos Stadium and Memorial Field Thursday morning.

“This is sacred ground to me,” he said as we read the monuments, each constructed to the exact height of each player. During his years of anguish, Stork explained, he had been unable to fully understand how a merciful God could have allowed such an unjust end to so many promising young lives.

A giving man with an easy laugh and quick wit who regularly donates his time to raising money at charitable auctions and events, Stork eventually came to believe that he and his teammates were spared to live as full and benevolent lives as possible. His faith restored, he lives each day as a gift.

The Cal Poly plane crash made national and international headlines. Shock turned to anger; Arctic Pacific Airlines went out of business; lawsuits were filed and successfully prosecuted against the government; Federal Aviation Administration rules concerning control tower authority, as well as banning the use of chartered aircraft for college teams, were enacted.

On a final note: I was the assistant water boy for the 1960 Mustangs. Little did I know I’d never again look into the fiercely competitive faces of the young men who died so tragically Oct. 29, 1960.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com.

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