The Plane Crash That Changed Wrestling.
by John Malinaro of SlamWrestling
It was supposed to be a routine flight.
On October 4, 1975, a twin-engine Cessna 310 plane carrying a promoter and four wrestlers took off from Charlotte for Wilmington, North Carolina. En route to an evening show at the outdoor Legion Stadium, the passengers were counting on a restful flight. It turned out to be something quite different.
As they approached the Wilmington Airport runway the plane ran out of gas, cutting across several treetops and a utility pole before crashing to the ground. And with that the lives of promoter David Crockett and wrestlers Tim Woods, Bobby Bruggers, then-U.S. Heavyweight champion Johnny Valentine and a 24-year-old upstart named Ric Flair were inextricably changed forever.
It is remembered as one of the most historic plane crashes in wrestling lore. It was the talk of the industry for years. The landscape of Mid-Atlantic Championship wrestling, the cornerstone of the National Wrestling Alliance (N.W.A.) was forever changed. Two careers were ended as a result of the crash, and another one, that of Ric Flair's, was almost stricken down before it ever really got started.
Twenty-five years later, Crockett, vice president of production for WCW, remembers the terror and fear that overcame him as the plane started to nose dive.
"At the time I was scared to death," Crockett recently told SLAM! Wrestling from his office at WCW headquarters in Atlanta. "I just remember as we started going across Cape Fear River, the engine started to fail. I remember leaning over trying to control my breathing. My wife had had our first child two weeks before, so I was trying to do Lamaze so I wouldn't get the wind knocked out of me and pass out, because I knew if I passed out I'd be deader than a doornail. I remember thinking I've got all these wrestlers in front of me, if we crash in this water, I'll never get past them and get out. There'd be no way."
Tim Woods, who wrestled under a mask at the time as the original Mr. Wrestling, remembered a conversation he had with Austin Idol, a plane crash survivor himself from a few years earlier.
"Austin Idol did not have his shoes on in the plane," recalled Woods from his Charlotte home. "And it tore the bottoms of his feet down to the bone and he nearly never wrestled again. When Austin Idol told me about that that was the first thing that went through my mind. I didn't have my shoes on either ... The pilot had a big briefcase with some airplane manuals in it. I grabbed that and put it under my feet because I didn't have time to get my shoes on."
"I knew we were going down, there was no question of that," continued Woods. "We just dropped like a rock. The controls levelled the plane out and that was about it. I knew that I wasn't going to die but I figured we'd all get hurt, it was just a matter of how badly."
Even though he knew they were going to crash, Johnny Valentine believed he would come out unscathed.
"All the time when they were going down, he said he knew he wasn't going to be hurt," said Valentine's wife Sharon. "He said he felt like he was indestructible. He said they were in trouble but that he was going to be all right. He kept telling them that."
The crash came about as a result of human error. The pilot, Vietnam veteran Joseph Michael Farkas, had trouble getting the plane off the ground in Charlotte because of the bulk of the wrestlers. He did not distribute the weight of the passengers in the plane properly and decided to dump fuel from the gas tank to lighten the load.
Valentine was the first to notice that the plane had run out of gas.
"John got to looking over at the gauge and said 'Gee, we're out of gas'. And the pilot said 'don't worry about that, my wing tanks are full,'" explained Sharon Valentine. "When they started sputtering and spinning the pilot panicked and started screaming. John reached over and slapped him to try and bring him to. Had the guy not panicked, they could have landed safely."
"It was a beautiful day. There weren't any headwinds or rough air... he dumped fuel," recounted Crockett. "(The plane) was overweight. Luckily for me, because I probably would not be here today, is that I should have been sitting where John Valentine was sitting because of the weight factor. The weight was distributed wrong and the pilot had to dump fuel to take off. None of us knew he had dumped fuel (before taking off)."
As the plane began to drop, several thoughts raced through Crockett's mind.
"I kept on wondering why were we trying to get to Wilmington, why couldn't we land in some place like Fayetteville (N.C.) or Florence (S.C.) instead of still trying to go all the way to Wilmington. There was this luggage compartment behind me and I sort of remembered that the plane had this plastic bubble back there. I was scared enough and thought that if I survive hitting the water I'll bust through the luggage door somehow.
"At some point when I was leaning forward, praying hard, I thought I saw a light and heard a buzzer going off," continued Crockett. "This crash was after the Eastern Airlines crash here in Charlotte where they just flew the plane right into the ground and the F.A.A. were talking about installing devices on planes that they were flying too close to the ground and let (the pilot) know. I was thinking maybe (that buzzer) was it. That's the last thing I remember."
After levelling off at 4,000 feet, the plane began to sink. It was a close call and Crockett said the pilot almost landed the plane safely.
"We crashed about 100 yards short of the runway. We just missed a water tower from the prison camp which is there at the end of the runway. (The pilot) stalled it and hit a tree and luckily we didn't flip and turn upside down. We hit another tree and bounced off and nosed dived into a railroad embankment. If we had gotten past the trees we would have made the clearing right before the runway."
"When we finally hit the ground, (the pilot) stalled the plane," recalled Woods. "By doing that, he got our speed down as low as possible. We were still between 85 and 100 miles when we hit the ground but we didn't slide that far. That was a real jolt. We kind of came down and it spanked us. That's where we had the back injuries and it threw everybody forward."
To this day, Crockett's memories of the crash are foggy. He has relied on the recollections of his wife Wendy and the other passengers to fill in the gaps in his memory.
"From talking to Valentine, he was conscious the whole time, he said 'David, be glad that you don't remember.' All the seats except mine broke loose and went forward."
Contrary to media reports at the time, none of the six passengers were thrown from the plane. Woods says all six passengers were pinned inside, struggling to survive.
"I think I was the only guy who didn't get knocked out. I was sitting right behind the pilot. All the seats broke loose. What happened was our forward motion took all the seats up in such a way that they were cascading one on top of the other. David was immediately behind me. It wasn't long. The rescue squad was there and took everybody out through the back baggage compartment door out the back of the plane."
All six were admitted to New Hanover County Hospital in Wilmington. All of them suffered a litany of serious injuries. After two months of fighting for his life, the pilot died in the hospital. He was 28.
Crockett, who felt the effects of the crash for six months after it happened, suffered trauma to his head and sustained other injuries.
"They stitched me up in my mouth, and I didn't realize that I had dislocated my shoulder. They tried to give me crutches to walk out of the hospital but my right arm wasn't working so they checked that and found out I had a dislocated shoulder. I was always complaining that whenever they put water or anything in my mouth I would scream bloody murder. When my wife got me back to Charlotte I was still complaining about it. I didn't want to eat or drink anything because it was hurting. She took me to our dentist, and he ... looked inside and he said, 'Well, I can understand that, he's shattered two teeth and the nerves are just sitting there exposed.'"
Ironically, David wasn't even supposed to be on the plane.
"I wasn't supposed to be flying that day, my brother Jimmy was. He called up and said he was feeling really bad with the flu. This was a Sunday event in Wilmington so I said I'd go because it was only a 45-minute plane ride."
Although Crockett has no problem getting on a plane today, he's still a little leery of flying.
"I'm still today very aware of what goes on in an airplane. I sleep on planes now, but if there's a smell or sound or motion I shoot straight up. I'm very aware."
Both Bruggers and Valentine sustained broken backs. After spending ten days in the Wilmington hospital, they were flown by chartered plane to a hospital in Houston where they underwent back surgery. A steel rod was later inserted into Bruggers's spinal column and he was released from the hospital three weeks later. Although he could have continued on in his career, he never wrestled again.
Crockett's head crashed through the seat in front of him, cracking and bruising Tim Woods' ribs. He also suffered a concussion and a slight compression fracture in his back and was the first to be released from the hospital the next day.
"I wanted to get out of there just as quickly as I could," commented Woods on his quick exit. "My wife was going crazy, we had two small children at home and she didn't know what to think. I was insistent on getting up and keeping moving. I got up and literally I had to have a person under each arm to get me to a commercial airline plane out of Wilmington to fly back to Charlotte. So I got in the plane and the plane landed in Charlotte... don't you know the brakes failed when we were on the end of the runway. This is the next day and I'm thinking 'Holy Cow! What's going to happen next?'" (laughs)
It was Johnny Valentine who suffered the worst fate. Having broken his back in the crash, a bone fracture wedged itself into his spinal column, forcing his back to be re-attached with a clamp. Valentine was paralysed for life. His career came to a tragic end and he never wrestled again.
Valentine was the U.S. Heavyweight champion and top star for Jim Crockett Promotions and was scheduled to face then-N.W.A. World Heavyweight champion Dory Funk Jr. the following week at the Greensboro Coliseum. Considered one of the best workers in the country at the time, Valentine's injury and forced retirement was a devastating loss to the wrestling community.
"I was a big fan of Johnny Valentine when I was growing up, watching wrestling in the '60s," said Bill Apter, editor of W.O.W. wrestling magazine. "And this was a very sad end to one of the most magnificent careers in the business. Especially being based in New York when I was growing up, he was either in the semi-final or the final match at Madison Square Gardens for so many years. For me, the worst thing that came out of that whole plane crash was the end of Johnny Valentine. I remember him the most from that."
To this day, it's Valentine's toughness that his colleagues remember the most.
"Valentine was known to be as tough a human being as probably there was around," opined Tim Woods. "He'd beat your brains out. He was tough, physically tough. I won't say he had the finesse of some of these other wrestlers, but I mean when it came to physical ability, my God that guy was tough. We went back and forth with the U.S. heavyweight title for some time. We wrestled each other all over the place. I always enjoyed wrestling him because it always seemed like I learned something. John was a master. Never been another like him, I doubt that there ever will be."
Ironically, had it not been for a simple twist of fate, it could have been Flair's career that ended, not Valentine's.
"I talked to Johnny Valentine about the crash and Johnny was next to the pilot, he was up front in the plane," informed Mike Mooneyham. A reporter and columnist with the Charleston (S.C) Post and Courier since 1979, Mooneyham is among the top wrestling historians in the U.S. "Flair was supposed to have been in (Valentine's) seat. He (originally was) in that seat next to the pilot but Johnny said he was kind of scared to be up there. He said Flair kept whining until Johnny said 'You get in the back, I'll sit up here in the front.' So really it could have changed the future of wrestling."
Looking back at this cruel twist of fate, Valentine's wife insists that Johnny bears no grudge against Ric for changing seats with him.
"It's okay that it happened. That's fate. Neither John nor I feel bad about the fact that had Ric still been sitting there, he'd be in this shape. John's never shown any animosity or anything about that."
Although he saved his money during his career, the cost of medical care drained Valentine's savings completely leaving him completely broke. Since the crash, he has had to live largely on the assistance of Social Security.
Still, Sharon Valentine insists that the crash didn't make her husband a bitter man.
"John never got angry. The only time I ever heard him get angry was when people say something derogatory against the business. He said there's no respect left amongst each other in those in the business. That angers him. No one has any respect for protecting the business or for each other. He said it used to be a brotherhood of respect among all and it's no longer there."
If there's any hard feelings about the crash, they're harboured by Sharon.
"John never heard from the Crocketts. He made them millions and millions of dollars. He blew (the territory) wide open. He never got nothing from them. Not talking about money, we're just talkin' about coming to see how their star is, and the guy who's doing the booking and taking care of things. Nothing."
That's not the way David Crockett saw it, and he said that he did get to see Valentine. "I saw John later, when I went to Houston," Crockett said. "As a matter of fact, he was managing some wrestler in crutches and braces. I don't remember who it was. They were trying to make him another Johnny Valentine, which you couldn't do."
Sharon also categorizes Flair's actions and attitude towards Valentine as "callous" and "cold", claiming her husband never heard from Flair after the crash.
"For Ric to hardly talk to him and ignore him, that's hard for me to swallow."
Valentine stayed involved in the sport, helping to train wrestlers from the backyard in his home. Last year, he and Sharon were invited up to New York where WCW held a special banquet and affair for the ailing star.
"They did a three day honorary thing for John up there, big dinner and party and stuff," described Sharon. "One of the WCW wrestlers came up to John and said 'Mr. Valentine, I heard years ago when you hit somebody you could hear it back in the parking lot. How'd you do that?' And before he could open his mouth John reached up and grabbed him by the hair of the head, jerked him face forward and put that big arm of his across his back and just drilled him to he floor. He really showed him how he did it. And then John looked at him and said 'There's no room in this business for wussies, boy.'"
Fate was kind to Ric Flair as had he not been in that front seat, it's possible that it would have been his career and not Valentine's that came to an end. Nevertheless, Flair suffered a broken back as a result of the crash and received a devastating prognosis from the doctors.
"They originally told him he probably wouldn't wrestle again because he had broken his back in three places," said Mooneyham. "And then they said the recovery time was probably going to be a year at the minimum, but he beat the odds and is still going today. He was remarkably resilient. He bounced right back, doctors were fairly negative in the beginning. He always knew he was going to be back. It was just another injury to overcome."
Prior to the crash, Flair was being groomed by the Crocketts to be the promotion's top star. He also had long term aspirations of becoming the N.W.A. World champion and knew that a prolonged stay on the sidelines would hurt his career.
"He wanted to get back because he was really making some big inroads at the time," offered Mooneyham. "He didn't want to lose any time because he had some pretty hot feuds going on. He wanted to get back in and start his feud with Wahoo."
In a sign of just how much wrestling has changed in 25 years, Mooneyham recalled how the hospital staff was legitimately worried when McDaniel showed up at the hospital.
"Wahoo was one of the first guys to visit him in the hospital and of course the hospital attendants were startled when (they saw Wahoo). They tried to restrain him. They believed it was a real feud and that Wahoo was trying to break into the hospital to get at Ric because Wahoo was barging right through the (security) in his style and they thought they might have to call the police on him."
Despite the prognostications of doctors, Flair returned to the ring in February 1976, and started his legendary feud with McDaniel. On May 24 in Charlotte, Flair defeated Wahoo in a hair vs. title match to win the Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight championship.
Flair was back in the game and everybody knew that nothing could stop him this time.
"He was pretty much destined for stardom," opined Mooneyham. "Everybody in the office was very high on him and everybody I remember talking to at the time knew that he was going to be World champion, it was just a matter of when. He was really itching to get back and that was an era where unless you really bent in half, you didn't miss any ring time. You knew you didn't miss time unless you absolutely had to."
Prior to Flair's return, things did not look good for the Crocketts. With their two top stars sidelined, Mooneyham says business took a turn for the worse.
"It was almost catastrophic because Valentine was 'The Man' back then. What it effectively did was take the two biggest stars in that promotion out of the loop and paralysed the promotion for several months."
News of the crash was covered by major newspapers and media outlets throughout the Southeast, including a front-page story the next day in the Charlotte Observer.
"We based our (reportage on) Associated Press wire service reports that came into the office," remembered Roger Mikeal, the reporter who covered the story for the Observer. "That (crash) happened out of eastern Carolina and we covered it out of Charlotte. I never went down there to the site (of the crash)."
This was 1975. Wrestling was still a 'closed' business. The Internet was decades away. Fans back then were not as 'wise' to the business as they are today. It's easy to assume that the Crocketts went to great lengths to 'kayfabe' people so as not to have it come out that Tim Woods, a babyface, was riding in a plane with Johnny Valentine, a hated heel and his scheduled opponent that evening in Wilmington.
Crockett insisted there was no 'cover-up'.
"That didn't really come into play because of the severity of the accident. No one really brought that up. People were more concerned with the accident and the people being hurt."
Mooneyham remembered it differently.
"They sweated that one because it was so kayfabe back then and they didn't want anybody to know that heels and babyfaces were on the plane together flying to a show. In fact the newspaper reports had Tim Woods's real name on there because the promoters didn't want the people to know that Tim Woods was on a plane with Ric Flair and Johnny Valentine who he feuded with. (The Charlotte Observer and the Greensboro Daily News) reports came out with a guy named George Burrell Woodin (Woods's real name), a promoter... I think they listed him on the police reports as a promoter. (The Crocketts) gave them that information. They were very protective of any kind of fraternization between bad guys and good guys."
Tim Woods's confirms Mooneyham's version of the events, stating he went to great lengths in helping the Crocketts to kayfabe their audience.
"I was wrestling under the mask at the time and George Woodin is my real name. When we went down they started taking information at the hospital. I gave them my real name. They didn't recognize my real name. We told them I was a promoter... You always hear stories today about wrestlers riding together and everything else, which just didn't happen back then. In this case, we were coming in from different places and Valentine was my foe that evening. That's why we (gave them the name) George Woodin (so) that nobody would recognize."
As word began to leak that the masked Mr. Wrestling was on the same plane with Johnny Valentine, Woods appeared on TV and at house shows days after being released from the hospital so as to give the impression that everything was normal and that he was not involved in the crash.
"This was important because I was under the mask... I made appearances. I went to the towns. I never missed a beat. The first match I wrestled was maybe two weeks later against Superstar Billy Graham in Richmond, VA. The pain was just excruciating."
As for that evening's show, the Crocketts were left scrambling for an explanation to offer the live audience.
"The show started on time and the ring announcer came into the ring," remembered Mooneyham. "He announced to the crowd that there was an airplane crash and that Valentine and Flair were injured and he told the fans that Tim Woods was lost and he couldn't make it on time. (laughs) They were still trying to kayfabe people. They didn't want people to know Tim Woods was on the plane with those guys."
A horrific crash like this puts things in their proper perspective. It underlines what's truly important in this life: Family and friends. If any good came of this crash, it's that it helped to strengthen the bonds of friendship and reinforced the value of life itself.
"I remember that I would not shut up until they put me in the same room as Ric at the hospital," said Crockett. "I had a head injury and Ric had a back injury so they put us on different floors. I raised holy hell saying I wasn't going to go anywhere and I wanted to be in the same room as my friend. I think (the crash) brought us closer together. We're still close. We don't see each other as much because I'm management and he's all around. But occasionally we get together socially and remember the good old days."
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