Mayday over Wichita: the worst military aviation disaster in Kansas History

It always amuses me when people refer to Kansas as a “fly-over” state. Truth be told, you wouldn’t be able to fly-over this great state if it wasn’t for our state’s place in the aviation history of our country. Home to aviation pioneers such as Amelia Earhart from Atchison, KS as well as scores of aviation companies, most notably Boeing, Beechcraft, Cessna, the list goes on. Kansas has also served as a training ground for countless pilots for many generations, names lost to time, but forever in our hearts. Kansas also maintains a multitude of museums devoted to our unique placement in aviation history.  My two favorite museums happen to be the Air Combat Museum in Topeka, Kansas and Liberal’s very own Mid-America Air Museum. One feels the history as you walk around historic aircraft that helped to defend, protect, and shape our nation.

Sadly, to go with these triumphs in aviation, Kansas has had more than its fair share of tragedy. Most everyone knows of our loss of Amelia Earhart as she attempted a solo flight around the world in 1937, the 1931 plane crash in a Kansas wheat field that claimed the life of famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, and in 1970 the crash that claimed the lives of players, coaches, and staff of the Wichita State University football team.

I have been familiar with this rich history for quite some time, but recently happened upon a book in the Liberal Memorial Library entitled “Mayday over Wichita: the worst military aviation disaster in Kansas history” by D.W. Carter, written in 2013 and published by the History Press. This story portrays the tragic crash of an Air Force KC-135 re-fueling tanker in Wichita, Kansas on January 16, 1965. Four minutes after take-off from McConnell Air Force Base the plane had gone off-course and was flying so low that many people could see the jet fuel spilling out of the back of the aircraft. Moments later it nose-dived into a heavily populated area, full of approximately 30,000 gallons of jet fuel.

The crash took place in a predominantly African-American neighborhood and killed all crewman onboard and approximately 30 people on the ground. Most of those who died on the ground were children. The tragedy struck quickly with no time for warnings, no time for crew members to escape, for those on the ground to run, there was nothing that could be done. For the crew, they were in a plane that had no ejection seats or personal parachutes. The thinking was that if something went wrong, there was literally no hope of surviving a crash. For those on the ground, moments were frozen in time as they attempted to start the car for the morning errands, make breakfast, or get out of the shower. For the witnesses, tragedy and horrific images they will never forget. Many first responders physically ill from the sight of the wreckage. Many in shock from the scene and the intensity from which it started and the quickness with which it ended.

Within 25 minutes emergency crews had control of the fire and begun the process of insuring the safety of all in the area. Wichita being an aviation town it was well-prepared to deal with the tragedy. In fact, just a week before they had a disaster meeting to discuss this very scenario. The book does a detailed job of walking the reader through all the possible scenarios that most probably led to the crash. The book also helps to dispel some rumors about the event that sprung up quickly in its aftermath.

I don’t want to give too much of this interesting story away, but needless to say the tragedy affected the community of Wichita for years to come. Slowly over the course of time, details have been forgotten and for the most part lost to the march of time. This is a fairly short book clocking in at about 158 pages. But those pages are rich with the history of Kansas and the story of aviation in Kansas.

The brave men, women, and families who were lost, or who remained after the event will forever live on in our hearts.

Next time you are in the library, check the shelves to see if this book is in. When you finish it, stop by my office and let’s chat about it.

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