DENVER, Colo. — On a clear October day in 1970, travelers were making their way along Loveland Pass. At about 11,900-foot elevation, most wouldn't expect to see an airliner flying in the valley below. But eyewitnesses at that elevated location sometime after noon on October 2, 1970 , reported seeing just that — a plane flying nearly 1,000 feet below them in the vicinity of Dry Gulch.
The aircraft they saw was a Martin 404 airliner, and it was getting closer and closer to the Continental Divide, an area where the doomed flight could not escape.
An accident report published by the National Transportation Safety Board notes that several eyewitnesses saw the aircraft flying below the mountaintops at all times. A pilot familiar with the Loveland Pass area observed the aircraft as he was driving eastbound on US 6, about two miles east of Dry Gulch.
"Thinking it must be in trouble, I stopped the car to get out and look and listen," the witness told investigators. "My initial and firm feeling was that the plane was in serious trouble as it was below the level of the mountains on either side that form the valley, and I didn't see how it could possibly turn around."
Around 1 p.m., the chartered twin-engined propliner transporting the Wichita State University football team from Wichita, Kansas, crashed at the base of Mount Trelease, 8 miles west of Silver Plume.
Of the 40 persons on board, 30, including the captain and a stewardess, received fatal injuries. Two of the surviving passengers later succumbed to injuries received in the crash, according to the NTSB accident report.
The 1970 Wichita State football plane crash was one of the worst in Colorado aviation history. But according to the NTSB, the accident could have easily been prevented if the pilots had not made a series of bad decisions.
The Martin 404 that crashed was part of two planes carrying WSU players, coaches and fans from Wichita to Logan, Utah for a game. The planes — dubbed "Gold" (crashed plane) and "Black" — stopped at Denver's Stapleton International Airport to refuel.
After refueling, the pilots of the Gold flight decided to take the "scenic" route up Clear Creek Valley, toward Loveland Pass and the Loveland ski resort area, according to the NTSB report. The Black flight took a different course up through Wyoming and landed safely in Logan.
However, the Gold flight was doomed the second it took off from Denver because of what transportation officials said was the "overloaded condition of the aircraft, the virtual absence of flight planning for the chosen route of flight from Denver to Logan, a lack of understanding on the part of the crew of the performance capabilities and limitations of the aircraft."
Investigators examining the wreckage found no evidence of mechanical failure. The NTSB notes that the pilots were satisfied with the plane's performance up until pilots began experiencing vibrations, which investigators say was likely caused by an attempt by the pilots to execute a 180-degree reversal of course.
But after completing the turn, the plane was fast approaching the rising ground of Mt. Trelease. The report notes that a "steep left bank was then necessary to avoid the mountain." But the aircraft stalled, lost altitude and made contact with the trees below.
The crash report was critical of the pilot and copilot, who investigators said did not spend any time examining the charts of the route to be flown before leaving Denver. Had they examined the charts, they would have known that the altitude they were at through Clear Creek Valley was too low to clear the Continental Divide.
"If the crew had been concerned about the aircraft's ability to clear the terrain ahead less than one minute sooner, when the aircraft was 1 1/2 to 2 miles east of Dry Gulch, a successful turnaround could have been executed. However, at that point on the flight path, the crew would have been unable to see that the valley ended at Loveland Pass, and thus they proceeded into an area from which an escape was not possible," the NTSB report read.
The report states that many occupants of the plane survived the initial impact. Some were able to escape the fuselage and make their way down the mountain. However, others were stuck under debris or knocked unconscious.
Wednesday marks the 49th anniversary of the Wichita State University crash. Each year, the university holds a ceremony on campus at a monument erected in the memory of those they lost.
Greg Records was a freshman at WSU at the time of the crash. He said the incident devastated the university and the state at the time. He traveled to the crash site in the years after the incident. His photos he shared with Denver7 show much of the debris remains on the side of the mountain. A memorial just off Interstate 70 honors the victims of the plane crash.
This story was originally published by Robert Garrison at KMGH.