Eric Douglas Published

Experienced Aviator Weighs In On Marshall Crash

Marshall Plane Crash

Marshall University recently honored the 75 passengers and crew who were killed on Nov. 14, 1970 in a plane crash that is often termed the worst aviation-related sports disaster in American history. It included 36 members of the Thundering Herd football team.

Read a related story about the 50th anniversary and the aftermath in Huntington.

The National Transportation Safety Board found that the crash most likely happened because the crew couldn’t see the landing strip and began to descend closer to the runway than recommended.

David Board has accumulated nearly 50,000 hours of flying time over his 50-year career in aviation. He has also managed an airport in West Virginia’s northern panhandle and worked as a flight instructor and airplane mechanic. He dug into university records and the NTSB report to look for more answers. He wrote his analysis of the accident in the fall issue of GOLDENSEAL magazine.

He shared his findings with Eric Douglas.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: So tell me what you found.

Board: Something was wrong in the cockpit. This just wasn’t a normal cockpit voice recording of an approach to an airport in bad weather. You know, nobody was talking to anybody. Normally there would be a pre-landing checklist. Most pilots are religious about doing that pre-landing checklist. There was no communication in the cockpit whatsoever. It was like there was maybe an underlying reason, which we’ll never know, of course. You heard the landing gear go down, but you don’t know who did it. The captain never asked for flaps.

Douglas: Walk me through it. You made a real point that they were too low on their approach.

Board: He was 140 feet below where he legally could be. And he only had 400 feet to play with. So he had nearly given up half of his safety buffer.

Douglas: They weren’t familiar with this airport. They were coming in too low. And as you describe it, the weather’s pretty lousy.

Board: They couldn’t see the airport, they couldn’t see where they were flying.

The ceiling was, like I say, 140 feet below the minimum that they could legally descend to. That could have been the reason it was so quiet, because they knew they couldn’t make it in there before they started the approach. They knew it should have been what we call a “missed approach,” because they knew they didn’t have the weather to get in. You’ve got to be able to see the airport to land.

Marshall Plane Crash

John Raby/AP
A memorial plaque is displayed at the site of a 1970 plane crash that killed 75 people, including 36 Marshall football players Oct. 24, 2020, near Huntington, W.Va. The Nov. 14, 1970 crash remains the worst sports disaster in U.S. history.

Douglas: What was going through their minds as they made this approach? Zero to no visibility, they’re not talking to each other. They’re so far outside the norms of aviation that I don’t even know how they could reconcile that.

Board: I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the captain decided to do this against the wishes of the two other crew members on board. One was a copilot. One was an engineer, I guess. But nobody, nobody was talking to each other. So that tells me that there was a bad atmosphere, and then to go down below to those levels — that was tantamount to suicide.

Douglas: So what would have been the alternative? They power up and take back off, but then what would they have done next?

Board: Well, they would have gone across to Charleston, where the weather was actually pretty decent. The landing there wouldn’t have been an issue.

Douglas: Had they done that, they could have flown to Charleston, and then caught a bus home and everything would have been fine. And we wouldn’t be having these conversations.

Board: Exactly. It would have taken about eight minutes. And they could have landed safely. They would’ve been inconvenienced, but that’s aviation.

Douglas: Tell me what’s the big key takeaway from your investigation into the crash?

Board: Well, it’s my opinion, of course, that pilot was determined to get them into Huntington. And that’s not what that’s not how it’s done. That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it. You’re supposed to do the missed approach and go to Charleston. I think he was acting a hero. You know, he’s playing the hero. That’s all I can think.