Once upon a time, sports teams could really only play teams within their geographic region. Way back in the day, one team could usually only play another team that was a bus or train ride away. Times have changed of course, and you see sports teams traveling internationally quite often to take on another team. Look at the NFL who has a running series to play in London, England each and every year, with plans to expand into other international locales in the works.
Geography really has no meaning in today’s modern world. Teams are not restricted by things like distance and borders. A quick jet ride will take you from America to England, from Spain to Italy, or from Russia to Germany. The point is, travel has become so quick and convenient, sports leagues around the world have been able to build their brand, as well as build rivalries with teams a half a world away
Of course, with the increase in air travel to get a team to a match, so too has the risk increased. Air travel is, statistically speaking of course, safer than driving a car. But accidents do happen. And with air travel, those accidents usually aren’t mere fender benders. No, when an airliner has problems, the results are, more times than not, catastrophic and completely devastating.
Over the years, there have been a number of plane crashes that have claimed the lives of a lot of athletes. Some of these air disasters have even wiped out entire teams. It’s always shocking to hear stories about teams being obliterated, and given the amount of travel sports teams do these days, it’s somewhat surprising it doesn’t happen more often.
With that in mind, let’s look at 20 sports teams that have been wiped out in tragically catastrophic plane crashes…
20. University of Evansville Purple Aces
On the night of December 13th, 1977, the University of Evansville men’s basketball team boarded a plane bound for Nashville, Tennessee, for their next game with the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders.
Sadly, they did not make it.
Shortly after take off, the plane lost control and crashed, killing most people on board. Among the dead were all but one member of the Purple Aces basketball squad who did not make the trip – David Furr. In a tragic twist of fate though, Furr – the only remaining member of the Purple Aces basketball team – and his brother were killed by a drunk driver about two weeks after the crash that wiped out his team.
19. Apex Motorsports
On March 30th, 2008, British race car driver Richard Lloyd and his Apex Motorsports team were traveling to France to prepare their Jaguar for the upcoming race season.
Shortly after takeoff though, the plan they were traveling on lost power to its engines and slammed into a house in Farnborough, London.
18. Zambian National Soccer Team
The 1993 Zambian National Soccer Team was a squad with a lot of promise after an impressive showing at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul that included a 4-0 destruction of Italy. In 1993, the team was well positioned to win the Africa Cup of Nations and secure a spot in their first World Cup.
And then tragedy struck.
As their flight traveled to Senegal for a World Cup qualifier match, the left engine caught fire. The pilot accidentally then shut down the right engine, which caused the plane to lose all power. It went down about 500 yards off the coast of Libreville, killing all thirty people on board, including eighteen members of the team.
17. United States Figure Skating Team
In February 1961, the US Figure Skating Team was headed for the World Championships being held in Prague. The US team, at the time, were the sport’s royalty – champions and heavy favorites to win big at the Worlds.
After circling an airport in Brussels though, the plane carrying the US team smacked hard into the ground and then exploded. Other than a dog that had been in the cargo hold of the plane, there were no survivors. Sixteen members of the US team and another sixteen coaches, officials, and family members all perished in the crash.
Investigators have never been able to determine the exact cause of the crash. The best theory they can come up with is that the plane’s stabilizers failed, sending the passengers on the flight to their doom.
It was a tragedy that rocked the sport to its very core, and the World Championships were canceled that year, out of respect to those who lost their lives.
16. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Football Team
In October 1960, the Cal Poly football team had just finished taking a 50-6 drubbing at the hands of Bowling Green. It was the furthest east the Cal Poly team had ever traveled and weather conditions were rapidly deteriorating. Everybody involved just wanted to get home.
Despite visibility being near zero, the pilot decided to roll the dice and take off. In hindsight, it was an unwise decision. The aircraft had just lifted off, and was about 100 feet off the ground when the left engine failed and was quickly followed by the right engine. The plane slammed back down to earth, splitting in two and bursting into flames on impact.
22 of the 48 people on board the plane died – 16 of the dead were Cal Poly football players. The team manager and an alumni booster also perished.
Investigators discovered that the plane had overloaded its maximum takeoff weight by 2,000 pounds, and that the pilot who made the decision to take off with weather conditions so poor, was flying on a revoked license – though he was still allowed to fly pending an appeal hearing.
For Cal Poly, the school did not play a game outside of California – meaning, they played no games that had to be flown to – for the next 9 years. Though he was not on board the plane, alumnus John Madden’s aversion to flying is believed to have originated with the crash – he lost a number of friends in the tragedy, and ever since, has never set foot on a plane again, giving rise to the infamous Madden Cruiser.
15. Torino AC Soccer Team
On May 4th, 1949, a crash that has become known as the Superga Air Disaster occurred. The plane, carrying the popular Torino AC soccer club, was headed for Turin, coming home from an exhibition in Lisbon, when it encountered a particularly brutal storm. Low clouds and poor visibility led the pilots to descend below the cloud cover in the hopes of making the descent into Turin visually.
The Torino AC team was widely touted as one of the nation’s greatest teams. Torino had won the Serie A title before World War II interrupted the league season. Because of the war, soccer had been put on hold for the duration of the conflict in Italy. But once it was over and soccer returned to normal, Torino won four straight titles from 1946-1949. At the time of the crash, it was again leading Serie A with just four games left in the season.
Unfortunately, when the plane descended through the clouds, it struck the rear wall of the Basilica that sat atop Superga hill. All 31 passengers on board were killed, including 18 players and two coaches of the Torino AC team. It was a crash that shook an entire nation to its core and left a deep psychological scar that is visible to this very day.
14. Manchester United Soccer Team
Today, Manchester United is one of the most popular soccer teams in the world and has worldwide brand recognition. In 1958, though, the team was wiped out in a truly tragic plane crash.
Flying from from a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade, the plane carrying Man U – also known as the “Busby Babes,” stopped in Munich, Germany, to refuel. Once the refueling was complete, the pilots tried and aborted two takeoff attempts because of some difficulties with the engine amid worsening weather conditions. By the time the pilots made a third attempt to take off, it had begun to snow, which caused a layer of slush to form at the end of the runway.
On the third attempt, the pilot got the plan moving, but when it hit that layer of slush, the plane lost a ton of speed, which meant that it would not be able to lift off. Instead, the plane skidded through the slush and barreled through a fence at the end of the runway. A wing was sheared off when it hit a house and the plane crashed.
23 of the 44 people on board died in the crash. Among the dead were eight of Man U’s players and three members of the team’s staff. The crash, and the deaths of its players, has left a dark, indelible mark on the soccer club that remains to this very day.
13. Pakhtakor FK
In August 1979, the Pakhtakor FK soccer team had made it to the Soviet Top League, and was the only Uzbek soccer club to hold that distinction. However, it was during a flight to play Dinamo Minsk that disaster struck.
During the course of the flight, the plane carrying the Uzbek team collided with another plane mid-air over the Ukranian town of Dneprodzerzhinsk. The collision killed all 178 souls on board both planes – including 17 members of the soccer team and the supporting staff.
It was a tragedy that rocked the Pakhtakor club, as well as the entire Soviet soccer league to its very core.
12. Iowa State Women’s Cross Country Team
In November 1985, the Iowa women’s cross country team was returning from the NCAA Cross Country Championships where they finished second. It should have been a cause for celebration, but one that turned into tragedy.
Two planes carrying members of the men’s and women’s team had departed earlier in the day. A third plane was scheduled to take those who’d stayed behind to attend the awards ceremony, home later that evening.
Due to construction and poor weather conditions in Ames, where they were supposed to have landed, that third flight was re-routed and instructed to land at the airport in Des Moines. They never made it. The last radio transmission from the pilot indicated that they were experiencing severe turbulence before all communications ceased.
The plane crashed down in a residential neighborhood and erupted into a ball of flame, killing all seven souls – including three members of the team – on board.
11. Puerto Rico Women’s National Volleyball Team
In preparation for the Central American and Caribbean Games being held in Panama in 1970, the Puerto Rican Women’s National Team played a friendly against the Dominican Republic.
Following the match, the team boarded a plane to head home. Shortly after takeoff from the airport in Santo Domingo though, the team’s plane crashed into the waters of the Caribbean Sea just off the coast of the Dominican Republic.
The crash killed all aboard, including most of the members of the Puerto Rican Women’s National team. The only member of the team who was not killed, was team captain Carmen Rosa Sabater, who left the day before.
10. Wichita State Football Team
In October 1970, the Wichita State football team split up and boarded two planes bound for Logan, Utah, and a game against Utah State University. There were two planes, one dubbed “Gold” and the other “Black” for the team’s colors, that carried the team and staff to Utah. Black, carrying Wichita State’s reserve players, assistant coaches, and other supporting personnel arrived safely. Gold, carrying the team’s starters, head coach, administrators, boosters, and their wives, met a tragic ending.
Looking to provide his passengers with a “scenic air tour” on the way to Utah, the pilot instead provided a tragedy when he found himself trapped in a box canyon with no way out. Many witnesses later testified that they saw the aircraft, headed toward the Continental Divide, flying extremely low. When the pilot realized his error as he headed up Clear Creek Valley, it was too late. The plane, overloaded and flying heavy, was not able to climb fast enough to avoid the mountain ridges and struck the side of the mountain.
Of the 40 passengers on board, 29 were killed at the scene. Two initial survivors later died from their injuries, bringing the death toll in the crash to 31 – including 14 of Wichita State’s football players.
9. “Colorful 11” Soccer Team
The Republic of Suriname is a small country located on the northeastern Atlantic side of South America. It was once a Dutch colony, who held it as Dutch Guiana until 1954. And as with most countries around the world, soccer is a huge part of the culture.
In 1989, a group of Surinamese soccer players, playing professionally in the Netherlands, organized an exhibition team known as the “Colorful 11” as part of an outreach program to help underprivileged children living in poor neighborhoods in Amsterdam find positive role models through sports.
The team was traveling on a commercial flight from Amsterdam to Suriname in June of 1989. The first ten hours of the flight passed uneventfully, as most flights do, but it was on the landing approach when tragedy struck. The plane’s number two engine struck a tree. The plane’s right wing struck another tree which caused the plane to roll, and then crashed hard into the ground upside down.
All told, 176 of the 187 passengers on board the doomed flight died on impact – including all of the members of the “Colorful 11.”
The accident was ruled to be pilot’s error and cited poor training and judgment for attempting to land using inappropriate navigation signals and ignoring multiple alarms signaling the impending crash.
8. Cuban National Fencing Team
Having swept the medals at the Pan American games in Caracas, Venezuela, twenty four members of Cuba’s national fencing team were returning home to celebrate. The team though, along with the rest of the passengers on Flight 455 in October 1976 never got that chance.
Shortly after takeoff from Barbados’ Seawell Airport, two timed bombs – one located in the rear near the bathroom, and the second in the middle of the passenger cabin – exploded. The first bomb destroyed the plane’s control cables and the second ripped a hole in the aircraft and started a fire.
Thought the pilots gave thought to turning back and heading for the airport, the rapid descent, along with the presence of hundreds of tourists on the beaches below, led the crew to decide to forgo that and attempt a water landing, if possible. It wasn’t.
All 73 people on board the doomed flight perished. Four men were ultimately arrested, with only two doing significant time – though there have been theories that the CIA and FBI were at least aware, if not complicit in the attack, with intriguing evidence to support the claim.
7. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl Hockey Team
On the eve of the start to the 2011-2012 season in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) – Russia’s top hockey league – the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was on a plane, bound for Minsk, Belarus for their opening match.
The weather conditions were good and the plane was given clearance to take off, but something went horribly wrong.
The accelerating plane passed the end of the runway and did not attempt to lift off for another 1,300 feet. But by then it was too late. The aircraft struck a beacon tower mast, was veered sharply to the left with some witnesses saying at that point, the plane burst into flames. The aircraft wound up crashing on the banks of the Tunoshna river where large sections disintegrated on impact and left a long – and wide – trail of debris in its wake.
Of the 45 passengers on board the doomed flight, 43 died on impact. One more died of his injuries several days later, with the only survivor being the avionics flight engineer, Alexander Sizov. The entire Lokomotiv Yarslovl team was wiped out. Among the dead were nine former NHL players – Pavol Demitra, Ruslan Salei, Karel Rachunek, Karlis Skrastins, Josef Vasicek, Alexander Vasyunov, Alex Karpovtsev, Igor Korolev, and Brad McCrimmon.
Adding to the tragedy was the fact that the pilot and co-pilot had falsified documents claiming they’d been properly trained on the aircraft they were flying. They weren’t rated to fly the plane and it was their error – namely incorrectly applying the brake pedals before raising the nose of the plane prevented it from lifting off. Not only that, but the co-pilot had undergone treatment for a nerve disease, had been banned from flying, and was found to have had phenobarbital, a banned substance, in his system at the time of the crash.
6. Saskatchewan Roughriders
An All Star game is supposed to be one of celebration. It’s where you’re recognized and celebrated as being among the best in your profession. And that’s where four members of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and one from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League, found themseleves in December of 1956.
Coming home from the Shrine Game between the All Stars from the East and West, held in Vancouver that year, Trans-Canada Air Flight experienced severe icing and turbulence over the mountains near Chilliwack, British Columbia, eventually crashing into Mount Slesse.
Where the plane went down, the terrain was so remote and so rugged, that the crash site was not located until the following May. And it was discovered by mountaineers out exploring.
The crash killed all 62 passengers on board – including all five CFL players – and was one of the worst air disasters in the world.
5. U.S. Boxing Team
On March 14th, 1980, the world, and the world of amateur boxing, was stunned to learn that the U.S. Boxing team had been all but wiped out of existence following a tragic plane crash.
Traveling from New York to Warsaw to compete in events in preparation for the upcoming Olympic trials, the team’s spirits were high and with a number of very talented athletes, they were looking forward to the future.
Following an exchange with the tower in which the pilots requested a go around to check on a potential problem with their landing gear, the plane entered an uncontrolled descent for unknown reasons. The plane’s right wing clipped a tree, and the plane impacted the frozen over moat of a 19th century Polish fortress where it disintegrated. Through a tremendous effort, the pilot did manage to avoid hitting a correctional facility for teenagers, but the loss of life was still staggering.
All told, 87 people were killed on the doomed flight including 14 American boxers, and eight staff members.
4. Alianza Lima Peru Soccer Team
Returning from a Peruvian League match in December 1987, Peru’s top rated soccer team was devastated by a catastrophic plane crash.
The pilot, unsure that his landing gear was down and locked, requested a flyby of the tower so ground spotters could confirm that the plane was prepared for landing. After that confirmation came, the plane circled around and began to line up the runway for its approach. Unfortunately, the plane was traveling too low and the right wing clipped the Pacific Ocean and the plane slammed into the waters below.
Initial reports were sketchy, but it appears that because of corrupt naval officials, Peru’s search and rescue vehicles had no fuel to operate – it had allegedly all been sold on the black market. The search for survivors did not begin until the next day and by then, the only living soul found was the pilot.
All told, the tragedy claimed the lives of 43 people – 29 soccer players, as well as trainers, support staff, cheerleaders, and crew members.
3. Hendrick Motorsports
For years, the Hendrick family has been a staple of the NASCAR circuit. They’ve been described as the kindest, most passionate family in the sport. In October 2004 though, a tragedy struck that rocked not just the family, but all of NASCAR to its very foundation.
On that cold, rainy October day, a small plane carrying eight members of the Hendrick Motorsports family, along with two pilots, took what was supposed to be a short flight from Concord, North Carolina to the speedway at Martinsville, Virginia, to attend a race. They never made it.
Attemping to land at the Blue Ridge Airport, the pilot of the plane, thanks to rain and fog, missed his first attempt, and circled back around to make another attempt at landing. Unfortunately, for a great many people, as the pilot circled around for another attempt, he slammed the plane into Bull Mountain, killing all on board.
Among the dead were Hendrick Motorsports team president John Hendrick, his twin daughters, Kimberly and Jennifer, Ricky Hendrick, who was the son of Rick Hendrick and possible heir apparent to the Hendrick Motorsports throne, GM Jeff Turner, and chief engine builder Randy Dorton.
Word of the tragedy broke midway through the race at Martinsville – a race won by Jimmie Johnson and the Hendrick Motorsports team – but all Victory Lane celebrations were canceled out of respect.
2. Marshall University Football Team
Forever immortalized on film, with the movie “We Are Marshall,” the Marshall University Thundering Herd’s tragedy has become one of the most famous plane crashes in history.
In November 1970, the Marshall University football team was traveling home after a 17-14 loss to the East Carolina Pirates in Greenville, North Carolina. In the midst of difficult weather conditions they told the plane’s crew that landing was difficult but possible. For reasons unknown, the plane carrying the team dropped well below the approach descent floor.
That additional drop in elevation caused the plane to clip the tops of the trees on a hillside west of the runway. The contact with the trees caused the plane to “dip right, almost invert, and crash into a hollow nose first” where it erupted into flames upon impact.
Among the dead were 37 members of the Thundering Herd football team, eight members of the coaching staff, 25 boosters, and the flight crew. The tale of the town of Huntington, West Virginia’s grief and mourning, as well as their rise from the ashes has been the subject of many books and films. It remains the deadliest sports-related disaster in US history.
1. Uruguayan “Old Christians Club” Rugby Team
Alongside the Marshall football team plane crash, this is perhaps one of the two most famous – or infamous – plane crashes in history. In 1972, the Uruguayan rugby club known as the “Old Christians Club” wast traveling from Uruguay to play a match in Santiago, Chile.
The plane carrying 45 people – the team, support staff, as well as supporters – crashed in the Andes Mountains on October 13th, 1972. More than a quarter of the passengers were killed on impact and several more quickly died from the freezing temperatures in the mountains.
27 people lived on several days after the accident, but an avalanche swept through the wreckage in which they sheltered, killing eight more people.
Eventually, two of the survivors volunteered to trek out to find a way off the mountains and to bring back help. Freezing, starving, and with rescue efforts halted, the survivors remaining at the crash site were forced to resort to cannibalizing the remains of the dead to survive.
For more than two months, fourteen people survived on the mountainside. The two boys who’d ventured out, were finally able to get off the mountain and find help. On December 23rd, 1972, rescuers found the remaining survivors and shepherded them to safety.
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