Pilot Street Air Disaster.
50 Years of Healing is made possible by Karen Fleming.
CFP and Ad Astra Financial Group developing customized financial programs that add confidence in your decisions, including investment selection, tax reduction and retirement income strategies.
Information at AdAstraFinancialGroup.com.
And the support of contributing viewers like you.
I couldn't believe it.
I really couldn't believe it.
A dramatic, shocking, life changing incident.
There was a lot of fire.
I thought it was hell itself.
That's what I thought.
A quiet Saturday, 9:31 a.m..
Families eating breakfast, kids watching cartoons.
I heard this loud noise.
I didn't know what had happened.
And then I seen is just fire and fire and smoke everywhere.
This quiet Wichita neighborhood is rocked by disaster.
An Air Force refueling tanker falls from the sky, taking a nosedive.
It's just a ball of fire.
Everywhere you look, there was fire.
This city park was a block of houses 50 years ago.
Until that moment on January 16th, 1965, when terror rained from the sky.
A real nice, wonderful house, sweet neighborhood.
The children played up and down the street.
Sonya House remembers.
It started out as a typical, relaxed Saturday morning at home with her 13 year old son and one year old nephew.
They were on the floor playing and have a good time.
So I then I went and cooked them some breakfast.
But moments later.
I heard this loud noise.
Then I looked over to these windows.
And here come this fire and smoke and everything right by the window.
House says she opened the door and couldn't believe her eyes.
Well, I couldn't see nothing but fire.
That's all I could see.
Rising high up in the sky as it could go.
But I'd never seen anything like that before.
She sent the kids running out of the house and away from the flames.
Then she noticed two little neighbor boys next door.
They was look like standing right in the fire.
So I grabbed them and I come back, put them in the car, and we headed that way as far as fast as we could go.
Meanwhile, two miles away, ten year old Victor Daniels didn't know what to think.
I felt the shake, you know?
You felt the vibration of the plane crash.
Though the temperature was a mere 16 degrees.
Daniels got on his bike and raced in the direction of the fire toward his grandmother's house.
My grandmother normally worked on Saturday mornings.
But on this Saturday he found out she was home.
I lost my grandmother, which was very dear to me.
I mean, me and my grandma was really close.
Daniels father and five year old cousin were also in the house when their entire block went up in flames.
It was right across the street from where the Woodard family still lives to this day.
Seven year old Darryl was watching cartoons.
We just heard a boom and our front door just busted open like police kicked it in or something and all the windows shattered in the house.
And I ran to the door.
I didn't know what was going on.
And all I see was fire out here.
Piatt Street here turned out to be the dividing line between life and death.
Those on the east side survived, their homes relatively intact, but on the west side, complete and almost instant destruction.
Lives and homes gone in a flash.
There were instances of heroism recorded at the crash scene.
One man rescued a family in a flaming house.
Another pulled an uninjured but dazed resident away from danger.
Red Cross and Salvation Army all mobilized for a disaster.
But those nearest the crash site were either killed or spared injury.
They were charred beyond recognition because they just splash with fuel and burn, thats all.
The death toll 30 people, 23 on the ground, along with seven on board the KC 135 tanker nicknamed RAGGY 42.
The plane had taken off just 4 minutes earlier from McConnell Air Force Base.
I remember that tanker taking off.
Now a retired airline pilot.
Doug Moler was a 21 year old machinist at the Boeing factory right next to the air base.
Most of the time, when a tanker would take off, it would go by fairly high.
But this this airplane was real low.
And I thought to myself, the airplane's either got a serious problem or is way heavy because there was no reason for it to be that low at that point in departure.
The plane's mission was to refuel in mid-air a modified B-52 bomber that was being tested.
But this flight lasted just 4 minutes.
It was doomed from the start, from the time it left the ground.
I would say when I saw that airplane go by the window and it was it was about like this, you know.
Instead of up here, it was like this.
It was over with.
Raggy 42, had taken off from McConnell at 9:27, heading north.
Witnesses say it never got more than a few hundred feet off the ground, starting a northwest turn over Oliver Street.
It started to yaw or appear unstable.
The crew started dumping fuel from the plane's massive refueling tanks as they flew over Wichita State University, then banked hard to the left.
Seconds later, the plane made a frantic mayday call to the control tower and the jet took a nosedive.
The airplane came across those trees of those houses going like this and finally just hit nose first.
And thank goodness it didn't just go like that.
Itd have cleaned out two or three or four city blocks, you know, but it pretty much hit it hit the ground.
And an attitude about like this.
You can imagine when that airplane hit the ground and dug a crater and threw debris everywhere, it was like a major bomb explosion.
I'll bet you were frantic with worry until you got here.
Oh, I was.
I couldn't get here fast enough because it looked like everything was getting in my way, and I couldn't realize what was going on.
But I started running and screaming up and down the street until I got here.
But I couldn't see my house until I got in the house.
Mrs. Brooks, let me talk to your children here.
Some of them performed real heroically.
And I want to I want to talk to you about it.
First of all, you got your brothers and sisters out of the house or help get them out and across the street.
Is that right?
I was washing dishes and I was certain the house is shaking.
And I looked out the window and our house is on fire.
And I raced downstairs to get my sisters and brothers out.
And I put them across the street and I came back to get them some clothes to put on.
I had distinct visual images of it.
I had my still camera with me, along with my video camera, and it was it was a day that changed Wichita.
Wichita was not ready for a crash of that size.
When the plane hit, the concussion knocked me to the floor.
I immediately got up, looked out the back window and saw the wall of flames coming from the plane.
Those lucky enough to escape death described the horror.
But many of those killed apparently never knew what hit them.
It was a terrible thing.
It really was.
Earl Tanner was a fire captain and says the images haunt him to this day of house after house, body after body.
There was a lady or I assume a lady in the kitchen, and then there was somebody in the bathtub was taking a bath.
That's all covered with fuel.
And they just burned immediately.
And out in the backyard, there was two young kids on tricycles laid over.
And they were also victims.
That was the Bolden's house.
Parents Albert and Wilma, along with Denise, age six, Brenda, age five and nine month old Leslie.
It was really a bad scene because everywhere you looked was people.
Meanwhile, rookie firefighter Allan Lister was at home two miles away from the scene.
When I when I heard him say on the radio that there'd been a plane crash at the 21st and Piatt is what they had said.
And that's when the adrenaline starts.
And I went out and I looked at that smoke and I thought, I'm going.
Lister found himself battling the biggest disaster of his career, a nightmare he had never imagined.
Yeah, it was.
It was pretty amazing.
It was surreal.
You know, you just just can't believe what you're seeing.
The worst of it is things that I really don't want to talk about too much.
But it was seeing the people who had been killed, that didn't make it.
The plane plunged into a vacant lot.
The impact blasted a crater 15 feet deep, sending 32,000 gallons of jet fuel and fire cascading in a southwest direction.
Fire crews had the flames out within an hour or so, but the damage had been done.
The torrent of death and destruction left a trail of loss and heartbreak.
I caught myself having a little girl friend.
We'd be on side of the house kissing and stuff.
Then the next thing I know theyd burned up.
They had burned up, the whole family.
The mother, dad and everybody.
They lived right across the street.
And I didn't know what to think then.
All I know, a lot of my friends that just disappeared.
This aircraft, the KC 135, was involved in a support mission supporting a B-52 and one of the routine programs conducted by Boeing Aircraft Company have required that the aircraft be rather heavily loaded with fuel.
This seven man crew was headquartered out of the Clinton Sherman Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
Their names are listed here on the memorial, at 20th and Piatt.
By all indications they were a capable, experienced crew who found themselves in a helpless situation.
It was the most devastating thing.
It still makes me teary just thinking about it.
Tracy Lempe is among several family members of the crew scattered around the world.
Her father was crew chief Joseph Jenkins.
Lempe was three years old at the time of the crash.
So I've heard such wonderful things about the kind of man he was, to know that I don't have any memories of him.
But her sister, Carol Lee, was old enough to remember.
She was the one who answered the door that morning to hear the tragic news.
I always tell my kids ever since they were little.
Like my mom always told us, always say that you love that person because you never know if that's going to be the last time that you'll see them.
That's the same thing Irene Huber says.
Her brother Danny Kenenski was assistant crew chief.
Huber was nine years old and says she remembers that day like it was yesterday.
The media got the news before we did and that was very difficult.
And it was probably another 8 hours or six or 8 hours before we got the absolute word that it was my brother.
Meanwhile, Jeanine Widseth lost her husband.
Gary always said, if you're going to worry about me, worry about me driving to the airport.
You know, flying is very safe.
And hed say, don't worry about me.
And I didn't.
Gary Widseth was the copilot.
He was 26 years old.
After 50 years, his wife still thinks about him every day.
And he was the man.
He was so courteous.
Such a gentleman, so kind.
He loved to fly.
That was his.
Besides his family, that was his love.
As Captain Widseths doomed flight was underway, his family in Oklahoma was spending their morning, much like the families on Piatt Street.
My children were watching cartoons.
That's when they had good cartoons.
And they came in with a bulletin saying that KC 135 had crashed in Wichita.
And I knew it was his plane because he had told me they were the only 135 there.
When something like that happens, the three men coming to your door.
You know, someone from the squadron, chaplain and a doctor.
So I just waited for the three men to come.
And when they came to the door and of course, I had my little kids were there, too.
It was official word that her husband of five years and father of her three children was never returning home.
I visited the site of the accident a month after.
Gary's best friend, Jerry rented a plane and flew me up there.
And then we took a cab out to the site and spent about 5 minutes.
There was a big hole, but I need to do things like that.
I'm that kind of person.
Now, half a century later, Mrs. Widseth continues to grieve over that day, often thinking about her husband's final moments.
Because he was the copilot.
He was sitting in that seat and so was the captain.
But everybody else, from my understanding, were standing in the cockpit because they knew there was something going on.
I think the plane, from what I've heard, felt like it was falling apart.
And, of course, then Gary gave out the mayday.
And so, when it crashed...
This then was the single greatest airplane disaster ever to hit the air capital, where hundreds of takeoffs and landings are accomplished routinely every day.
These are seven men who were serving their country that morning and encountered an unfortunate mechanical malfunction on the plane, causing it to crash.
Historian and author David Carter became fascinated with the crash while he was serving in the Air Force, stationed at McConnell in 2003.
Carter's years of research are documented in his recent book, Mayday Over Wichita.
This was an accident, unmitigated disaster.
After the smoke and heat cleared, as many parts and pieces as could be found were taken to Tinker Air Force Base at Oklahoma City for reconstruction.
But this disaster left little material evidence to determine a cause.
Virtually nothing was left of the plane that was recognizable.
It was a challenge for the Air Force.
You know, they started out with a 50 man team and they go into the Piatt Street site and they scour the site looking for evidence of the crash.
It was a meticulous job.
These Air Force investigators combined with Boeing, were detectives.
You have to look at it that way.
And they scour this site, this crash site.
They put together these pieces that they can find, including the engines and a bit of the crumpled tail section.
Just three days after the crash, reports surfaced of a parachute found entangled in the wreckage of one of the engines.
That led to speculation which the Air Force attempted to immediately put to rest.
The parachute reportedly attached to one of the jet engines of a KC 135, which crashed in Wichita Saturday, was upon investigation at Oklahoma City's Tinker Air Force Base, found to be pieces of parachute nylon cord.
These cards became entangled on portions of the aft section of the engine as it was extracted from the ground during salvage operations, and thus could not have contributed to the accident.
Nevertheless, to this day, aviation websites suggest that was a jet fighter drag chute left on the runway, which got sucked into one of the engines upon takeoff, fatally crippling the plane.
In reality, investigators determined it was an emergency parachute that had been on board Raggy 42.
A crew member, had apparently attempted to use it to bail out of the plane as it was going down.
Instead, the investigation pointed in a different direction.
It had a nickname Raggy 42, for good reason.
There were several write up, several maintenance write ups on this airplane.
In fact, Carter says the plane was not supposed to be at McConnell in the first place.
The plane was initially supposed to head into Southeast Asia, but due to the boom malfunctioning on the rear end of the plane, they were diverted and they headed to McConnell to work those kinks out.
But the refueling boom wasn't the plane's fatal flaw.
Ten months after the crash, the Air Force issued an official accident report.
However, Carter says this report had been lost for decades because of a fire at the Disaster Research Center in Delaware.
Only after repeated Freedom of Information requests was Carter able to get a copy of the lost report.
It states the cause of the crash to be a rudder control system malfunction of such magnitude as to compromise control of the aircraft and preclude proper corrective action by the pilots in the short time available.
They examined the radio traffic from the pilots and they also examined that tail section, and they were able to determine that the autopilot malfunctioned to some degree and caused the rudder to jam, which ultimately crashed the plane.
Carter's research uncovered that earlier that week the crew had reported the autopilot and rudder were malfunctioning.
Though these problems were considered minor.
That would not have stopped the captain from proceeding with the mission because it didn't seem like it was going to impair what they were trying to do.
A basic refueling mission is what they were trying to do.
It would not have hindered their basic operations.
It just so happens that ultimately it became more severe as the flight went on.
The autopilot does just that it pilots plane so that the pilots can be set on a straight course, almost like a car.
When you set cruise control, the rudder in and of itself moves back and forth.
So it controls where the nose of that plane is going to go.
And in this case, with no control, that nose took a dove straight down at 20th and Piatt.
Lives lost, homes destroyed, a disaster unlike Kansas had ever seen.
The worst aviation disaster in Kansas history.
I think that still stands.
30 lives ended.
Dozens more were changed forever.
Everything is being done that can be done.
General Wade and his staff is making financing available for the families that need, emergency circumstances.
And homes are being found to locate those that need to be displaced for a temporary period.
The Wichita community got high marks for its immediate response to the disaster here, but after a few days, that outpouring of help for the survivors seemed to wane.
Temporary housing provided by local landlords in many cases turned out to be rundown and unsafe.
Many of the clothes donated were odd sizes or worn out.
I dont know.
See if we black...
Hate to just put it that blunt.
But thats the only reason that I know.
There was cash available.
If they need emergency payments to take care of needs for food, clothing, shelter, burial expenses and things of that nature, there is a provision whereby we can pay immediately up to $1,000.
But to get that thousand dollars, survivors had to sign paperwork.
Many were warned by their attorneys not to sign anything for fear they would be waiving their rights to future claims against the government.
Captain Martin, what must people do to make a claim to the Air Force as a result of yesterday's air crash?
We have a claims office set up at the Air Force command post at 21st and Minnesota.
We will be here for a week or several weeks to receive claims.
For loss of life and property, survivors could seek damages under the Military Claims Act or file lawsuits against the Air Force and Boeing.
Nearly half of them were represented by the same attorney, Chester Lewis, who encouraged lawsuits.
In the end, payouts were small.
One family was awarded just $400 for the death of a child.
The lowest award for the death of an adult was $700.
The highest 14,000.
Survivors got more money for loss of property.
But altogether, the settlements from 30 lawsuits averaged less than $13,000 each, -20% attorney fees.
I don't know.
I think given the time, there are a lot of factors at play there.
I can't say specifically, and I haven't seen anything in research that tells me this is why they got paid this specific amount.
But they were very low.
Families received just a few thousand dollars for a loss of a loved one.
And that's a terrible tragedy in and of itself.
Not that I'm wanting a lot of money, but I always thought, well, maybe if I had enough money in an education fund to help me out a little bit, maybe I would have took a little bit different direction.
Would we have gotten any more money if we would have been white or in a different neighborhood.?
You know, all of this stuff comes up.
You know what ifs, you know?
What do you think?
You don't know.
You know, there's always that thought that I could have been here too.
Why wasn't I?
I could have been here too.
At age five, Clyde Stevens had been sent away to live in California because his father in Wichita was disabled and could no longer care for him.
It wasn't until recently that Stevens learned about this plane crash back in 1965 that killed his dad.
The only way I can see it is it was God.
Because out of all the years that I've been on the face of this earth, this particular day, I woke up and something as they call the institution that you first went to in California and ask the director if he has any paperwork pertaining to you when you stayed there about any of your history.
And when I got the paperwork, that's when I found out that he was killed by a C-135 Air Force tanker plane.
Stevens has returned to Wichita to reconnect with his roots and visit the scene of the disaster.
This is the last place my father was alive.
By being here, it makes me feel a lot closer.
He's trying to make up for lost time, though, realizing the damage was done long ago when Raggy 42, tore a path of destruction through his dad's neighborhood.
Straight down through here.
You just picture a trail of fire.
Stevens father was a roomer at the same house where Victor Daniels family lived and died.
Yeah, this is it.
Ok, this is Tracy Randolph, Claude Daniels and Mary Daniels.
I used to come out here as a kid, sit out here and get drunk or cry or whatever I did.
We had one, one funeral that day for all three of them.
It was very solemn day, and a funeral was up at Tabernacle Baptist Church at that time.
Some lives ended.
Others were changed forever.
Daniels finds himself asking, What if that jet wouldn't have crashed 50 years ago?
I've always thought, well, when I turned out to be an alcoholic, my grandmother would have had some input on how I grew up.
I never knew, you know, but I can't hold that against anybody.
All I want is people to know that folks lost their life over there at that plane crash site.
Not just the residents, but people on the airplane.
And we should honor that.
And such honor has come in different forms as ways of preserving memories that are painful.
Nevertheless, those who lived through the disaster don't want it forgotten.
Couldve been me... this side of the street was on fire.
Remnants of the crash still show up from time to time in the park where houses once sat.
Darryl Woodard recently found what he believes is a piece of the plane.
He has painted the torn piece of metal and made it into a keychain.
Just last year, Woodard also found this corroded 1964 nickel on the ground that was once soaked with jet fuel and consumed with fire in 1965.
I can't even believe it's 50 years because it seemed like yesterday.
With every year that passes, the number of eyewitnesses to that tragedy continues to get smaller.
But the memories of those 30 victims are set in stone at monuments at McConnell Air Force Base and here at the crash site.
Let's never forget.
Lets never forget the worst tragedy that's ever happened in Wichita.
However, for decades, there was no memorial anywhere, and it seemed this disaster was on the verge of being forgotten.
As soon as two days after the crash, the idea first came up of erecting a monument at the site.
But time passed and nothing happened.
I think the time had a lot to do, a lot with it.
Look at 1965, America.
There was so much going on.
In 1965 that when you encapsulate this tragedy, it almost seems as if it's a drop in the bucket.
I'm not minimizing the event at all, but there was so much going on, it sort of gets lost.
The scene at 20th and Piatt was cleared within a year and became a vacant lot.
The city of Wichita acquired the property in 1971 and turned it into a park.
But there was no sign, no indication to visitors of the horrific tragedy that had happened here and the lives that were lost.
After persistent pressure from survivors, the city finally named the area Piatt Memorial Park in 2004.
But there was still no marker to explain why it was named that.
Because if it had been a white neighborhood, there wouldve been one there a long time ago.
Finally, in 2001, the Air Force erected a memorial at McConnell to honor those in the plane and those on the ground who were killed.
It was meant to be accessible to everyone, but three months later came 9/11.
From then on, military bases became off limits to the general public.
Then in 2004, freshman state representative, Oletha Faust-Goudeau got involved in efforts to erect a monument at the crash site.
I don't know.
Some people say, you know, others the powers that be who have the money and the means to place a monument at the site that they just didn't care about that community.
Faust-Goudeau helped assemble volunteers, collect donations and secure grant money to build this $100,000 granite memorial and place it in the park in 2007.
More than 42 years after the deadly disaster.
What I've learned from this is that it brought a lot of people together.
Is that regardless of why it's just happened.
I think it's a way that we can build on the future that we all of us here now who experienced this tragedy.
When we're dead and gone, the children that come behind us will be able to read what's there on the monuments and the bricks that are displayed at the actual site.
You're going to see that monument and you can read on it what happened, because there's a statement on there telling you about that cold January morning... about nine something, 9:33.
Here come that big KC 135, jet tanker boom and everybody's gone.
Life has changed.
It's nothing like it was going to be.
Nothing like it would have been.
Its changed forever.
The sacred place is like a cemetery.
That's a place to remember good things about them.
It's a good thing for us to remember them and pray for their relatives that were left behind.
The images of that day are still so vivid in Allan Lister's mind that he recently painted this picture.
That was the scene that I saw as I got up to the corner of 19th Street.
But I just thought, you know, it's been in my mind and I wanted to get it down on canvas.
Meanwhile, Sonya House has preserved her thoughts and memories in verse.
50 years has come and gone since that airplane fell near our home.
It really looked like judgment day.
And all we could do was weep and pray.
Everything was quiet and calm.
Then something sounded like a bomb.
Then the loud noise came, rumbling by.
It was that big jet falling from the sky.
It hit the ground with a great big noise.
And killed lots of little girls and boys.
The billows raged and the flames rolled high.
Then all those innocent people had to die.
It happened almost quicker than a wink.
We were so frightened we could hardly think.
And we really didn't know just what to do because we really didn't believe that was true.
Those fire trucks got here so quick, quick as they could.
But the houses were burning just like kindling wood, and the people were running all over the place with awful expressions upon their face.
30 people lost their lives and it cut our hearts like a two edged knife.
It was the most awful thing that I've ever seen, and it was like a nightmare or some awful dream.
They really had dead bodies all over in a nearby field.
And that really gave our hearts a chill.
That's where some of the children used to play.
Now is where their dead bodies lay.
The neighborhood looked like a place of war.
The people came from near and far.
It was something we really will never forget.
For though it was 50 years, we remember it yet.
We thank God through all our sorrow and pain.
And His help for us, after that crash of that big jet plane.
Many days, we didn't know just what we were going to do.
But The God of Heaven gave us strength and took us through.
Now, when I hear a great big plane go roaring by, I say ‘O Lord, please keep that big airplane up in the sky.
Bless it Lord, and keep it safe until it reaches its safe landing place.
Yes, I met you.
Didnt you come down to the memorial out there on the base?
Yes, and you and I unveiled it.
Yeah, because I've got a picture of me and you.
That was just a special event.
That really was.
I just was brought tears to my eyes all afternoon here to meet these people.
Ive got a new brother here.
I almost didn't come.
I changed my mind and then went back to it.
And I was mixed emotions.
Afraid, excited, worried, nervous.
But then in the end knew that I needed to be here.
I feel like I'm walking on hallowed ground.
A friend of mine, I. I hesitated, coming, and she said, You need to go, thats where Garys soul left.
And along with everybody else, all their souls left and went to Heaven, at that spot.
It's a healing, its a healing.
Because my heart being messed up ever since then.
All my friends, they left 50 years ago.
But that's why I'm here for them right now.
Piatt Street Air Disaster.
50 years of healing is made possible by Karen Fleming, CFP and Ad Astra Financial Group developing customized financial Programs that add confidence in your decisions, including Investment selection, tax reduction and retirement income Strategies.
Information at AdAstraFinancialGroup.com.
And the support Of contributing viewers like You.