Elgin and the Lakers’ Cornfield Angel
By Peter Vecsey
While the masses clustered to venerate Elgin Baylor’s glorious game in death after decades of habitually omitting him his rightful residence among the elite players in planet history whenever the topic was raised and reasoned, I choose to look at his passing from an incongruent angle.
My paramount thought upon hearing Boneaylor had transitioned was, if not for pilot Harold Gifford’s inestimable expertise and experience, the 6-5 inflight gymnast, owner of the NBA’s third highest scoring average behind Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan, would’ve perished 61 years ago along with everyone else on a Lakers’ gas-drained, lights-out DC3 charter forced to land during a snowstorm in a Carroll, Iowa, cornfield.
“Yes,” Gifford concurred when contacted at his home outside Minneapolis. “I had something to do with Baylor completing his legacy and enjoying everlasting fame. But I benefited, too.”
Gifford is 97, a categorically coherent 97. Numerous times he put me to shame with his fine-tuned faculty to name names, only occasionally pausing to dig deep into the distant past.
“I’m still perking, and I still have all my original parts,” he responded to my compliment about his impeccable memory bank.
During several extended conversations we’ve had over the last few days, he bombarded me with dozens and dozens of details of that five-hour and 40-minute scramble that began in distress upon takeoff from St. Louis after a loss to the Hawks en route to Minneapolis, and came within Gifford’s ripened reflex of calamity when he scarcely avoided treetops.
“Elgin was a very private person,” Gifford said when asked what, if anything, he recollected about Baylor. “I was never able to contact him over the years.”
Gifford does remember him being very apprehensive about flying. Remembered him coming into the cockpit and asking how high they were flying, or where they were. Chicago, or some such distinguished place was pointed out, and he’d return to his seat.
Was that something Baylor often did?
“Frequently,” Gifford replied. “That night we were up 17,000 feet, I didn’t hear anything from him.”
There were usually two pilots for each charter, though there were three on that fright flight. Vernon Ullman was the captain; more about his suspect role later. Jim Holznagel, 21 and fresh from receiving his pilot’s license--now 82, and living in Fairbanks, Alaska--was ‘working’ his first trip for Gopher Airlines. He sat in the cabin’s jump seat. He did not get paid. It was a get-the-lay-of-the-skies free trip.
What a score!
If the pilots wanted to see a Lakers’ game on the road, they were given team equipment bags to carry into arenas to make them look official. They’d sit in back of the players, where flocks of team assistant coaches currently perch three rows deep.
Gifford remembers being behind the Lakers’ bench in the old Madison Square Garden watching Baylor dribbling up the sideline. “Just before he shot, his head would slightly swivel right or left as if he he had a twitch.
“The guys would kid him, saying Elgin developed it from cheating in card games,” Gifford said.
“I don’t remember too many distinctive things about Baylor, but I do vaguely recall him outside the plane in the deep snow that night looking up at the stars and praying, thanking God.”
A seamless segue, I submit, for another overriding thought of mine following the news Baylor had passed at 86. Think about it; if not for Gifford’s unruffled bravado to take control of a terrifying situation when the captain’s capacity to make decisions malfunctioned (see below) the Lakers’ franchise would’ve very possibly ceased to exist.
True, the NBA probably would’ve conducted a dispersal draft involving the league’s remaining seven teams to restock the Lakers. Nonetheless, the talent would’ve dramatically lacked consequence to justify their relocation to Los Angeles the next season, the first team to go farther west than St. Louis. Moreover, the reconstructed Lakers would not have had the appeal to transform people unfamiliar with professional basketball into paying customers.
Don’t tell Jerry West (a rookie in 60-61) I wrote that.
Who Knows? Minus the Lakers, winners of five titles (49-54), the struggling NBA may have become such a Humpty Dumpty league it might’ve folded.
Four years ago—nine after I’d written a piece about the Lakers’ near fatal expedition--I received an email from Harold Gifford, whom I had not interviewed; I’d focused strictly on learning players’ accounts.
I was co-pilot on the Lakers flight in 1960. Jim Holznagel was the third pilot. He and I are still alive and well. There had been an avalanche of misinformation about the flight so we decided to attempt to set the record straight by publishing a book, "The Miracle Landing", available on Amazon and Kindle. If you care to hear our story my # is … and Jim's is…. Jeanie Buss wrote a forward for the book and we have remained in contact. Jeanie often suggests the story would make a compelling movie. Several years after the landing, Verne Ullman died of a brain tumor. It has been suspected that his erratic behavior prior to and during the flight had been a result of the lingering problem.
As illustrated in the book it was you that ignited the spark that revived the story. I have been wanting to talk with you for a long time. I am nearly 93 and no longer do I buy green bananas.
Before delving into the ‘avalanche of misinformation’, first the column I wrote in the New York Post February 8, 2009…
CHARLES Lindbergh carved out his hallowed highland in aviation history by becoming the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger awed mankind on Jan. 15 by belly-flopping U.S. Airways Flight 1549 onto the Hudson River, saving all 155 people on board.
Forty-nine years before, almost to the day, retired Lt. Col. Vernon Ullman, who saw action in World War II and Korea, and co-pilot Harold Gifford set down a twin-engine DC-3 in heavy snow in a Carroll, Iowa, cornfield.
The pilots lacked a radio, defroster and lights and had almost no visibility. Ten Minneapolis Lakers, nine others in their traveling party (including four children, one of whom was head coach Jim Pollard’s 11-year-old son, Jack) and three crew members rushed completely unscathed from the utterly undamaged aircraft.
In late December, I was in Los Angeles interviewing Elgin Baylor about his extraordinary playing career when suddenly he swerved into an astonishing account of his Minneapolis Lakers team’s near fatal landing during his second NBA season.
A few weeks later, Sullenberger makes the save of the century.
Hold on; not so fast.
No disrespect, but compared to what Ullman and Gifford accomplished and the five-hour-40-minute ordeal their human cargo suffered, the US Airways’ matter-of-minutes West Side miracle was for the birds.
On Sunday afternoon, Jan. 17, 1960, despite Baylor’s 43 points, the 13-20 Lakers lost, 135-119, to the Hawks in St. Louis.
“We were a picture of instability,” recalled Tom Hawkins, a rookie on that Lakers team.
They were the franchise’s stepchildren, having inherited the unpleasant legacy of the league’s original dynasty – George Mikan, Slater Martin, Vern Mikkelsen, Whitey Skoog and Pollard – that won five titles from 1948-54.
“We had some good names (Baylor, Hot Rod Hundley, Frank Selvy, Slick Leonard, Rudy LaRusso, Dick Garmaker, Larry Foust, Jim Krebs, Boo Ellis) and some good reps,” Hawkins said. “But people weren’t buying this interim unit. Everything was in upheaval.”
Lakers owner Bob Short, former undersecretary of the Navy and president of Admiral Transit, a trucking firm, was in dire financial straits. At the time, the furthest west the eight-team NBA had expanded was St. Louis; Short was angling to move to Los Angeles. He did so the very next season and was drawing capacity crowds (14,505) in no time flat.
On Jan. 2, 1960, Lakers coach John Castellani resigned; he’d coached Baylor two years in college at Seattle. The previous season, he had replaced John Kundla, the brains behind the empire. Shaking off a 33-39 mark to reach the playoffs, the Lakers upset the Hawks in six in the Western Division finals, only to get swept by the Celtics in the championship round.
“We drove to Game 4 in cars packed with our belongings in order to get a head start to where we lived during the offseason,” Slick Leonard said, giving a pragmatic shrug.
Pollard took over as coach of the 1959-60 Lakers when they were 11-15. His coaching column read 2-5 when the Lakers –minus LaRusso, home with an ulcer – arrived at St. Louis airport. Due to a light snow and icy conditions, departure was delayed several hours. During that interruption, referee Earl Strom opted for another means of transportation to Minneapolis.
Jim Krebs, a good guy but swathed in doom and gloom, told teammates from time to time he wouldn’t live beyond 33, Dick Garmaker recalled. Baylor and Hawkins couldn’t remember Krebs without an Ouija board. In the terminal dining area, the board predicted the Lakers would have a plane accident. “He kept telling us we should not fly that day,” they harmonized.
At 8:30 p.m., Short’s DC-3-owned craft--cheaper to fly than commercial, decades before it dawned on the Pistons and Bulls to charter--left St. Louis in light snowfall bound for Minneapolis. About five minutes after takeoff, the specially-rigged card table that accommodated eight players was erected in the front aisle.
“We thought someone was fooling around because the lights began flashing from bright to dim, and then went off altogether,” Baylor said, allowing, “We were in the dark.” Both generators had shut down from overuse while grounded. Everything electrical was lost.
“The only sound was the whir of two spinning props,” Hawkins recounted.
Devoid of verbal direction from the control tower, it was impossible to return to the heavily trafficked, jet-busy airport. So the plane climbed to 8,000 feet to escape the snow and headed for home. After 15 minutes, the rapidly intensifying storm overtook and encircled the plane. All optical contact vanished.
Flying by a manual compass, the aircraft ascended higher and higher in an effort to climb above the blizzard. Then even that instrument failed; the wind and weather caused the compass to gyrate madly. Taking a bearing on the North Star, Ullman and Gifford were obliged to rely exclusively on celestial navigation. Judging by the twists and turns, the pilots apparently were disoriented.
Because a DC-3 is non-pressurized, it should never go beyond 15,000 feet. Exceeding that altitude numerous times resulted in gasping for breath and the children becoming ill. The floor began to freeze. Thin blankets and winter coats provided futile warmth.
“It was horrible!” Hawkins said. “The cold and the fear and the lack of oxygen triggered uncontrollable twitching and constriction in the throat. Yet, amazingly, nobody panicked, not even the kids.”
Hawkins and Leonard recoiled in the last two seats. “I’m a rookie and scared as hell,” Hawkins said, “thinking to myself, ‘This is what I wanted my whole life, to play pro basketball, and here I am flying blind to who knows where.’
“I asked Slick if he thought we were going to make it. He said, ‘Don’t worry, man, we’ll come out of this OK.’ He was very reassuring. He was my mentor and was like that, very positive. Meanwhile, we were bobbing and weaving. I don’t think I believed him.”
That probably was because Hawkins saw the pilots don goggles and stick their heads out the small side panels in order to see. Ice encased the front windows. It was 12:30 a.m. or thereabouts on Jan. 18. They’d been airborne four plus hours when one engine began failing. The pilots decided to come down, but could find no bottom to the storm clouds. According to an altimeter they read by a flashlight held by Jim Holznagel, they had dropped to 200 feet.
Ullman, his face and hands frostbitten, came out of the cockpit and told the passengers there was roughly 30 minutes of fuel remaining. The plane had to be taken down lower still in order to look for a place to land. The lights of a town below abruptly lit up the sky. The Carroll police had phoned residents, the team later learned, and asked them to turn on their lights in the hope the pilots would see the airport. Ullman and Gifford never knew one existed. They had no idea they were in Carroll, Iowa.
At least once, maybe more, according to various descriptions of subsequent close encounters with catastrophe, the plane unexpectedly veered upward to avoid a blacktopped road, a grove of trees, hot wires and an oncoming 18-wheeler.
“Finally,” Ullman was quoted in the Carroll Daily Times Herald, “we spotted this corn field and decided to set down there because the standing corn showed up dark against the snow background, and that gave us visual reference.”
Both pilots had farming backgrounds. Gifford had flown crop dusters. Knowing there were no ditches or rocks and that the field was in neat rows, the prevailing feeling was it’d be the best option to land. After circling twice, Ullman rolled the flaps out and throttled down to an airspeed of 70 knots, toward a slight incline in the standing corn.
Frank Selvy had a 4 1/2 month-old girl, Leslie, and a wife, Barbara. “I was thinking this is a helluva way to go,” he told me.
“I was petrified, but I was afraid to show it because the kids were so calm,” Garmaker admitted when contacted.
“I don’t think everyone was as scared as you’d think,” Boo Ellis claimed.
“We still had a chance. The plane was not out of control. Our biggest concerns were low fuel and not being able to see.”
Yup, other than that, the landing figured to be a breeze.
Baylor told me he left his seat and positioned himself on the floor in the rear, hooking his arms and legs around seat bottoms on both sides. “I’d read the back was the safest place to be,” he said. “By then my fear of dying was gone. If I was going to go, then let it be. But I really felt we were going to be fine.”
The emergency landing, on a farm owned by Elmer Steffes, occurred around 1:40 a.m.
“We practically pancaked in and the plane rolled about 100 yards after we touched down.” Gifford told Stew Thornley, author of “Basketball’s Original Dynasty: The History of the Lakers.”
Inadvertently, the tail wheel had hooked on the top strand of a barbed wire fence, helping the plane to stop. “It was like landing on an aircraft carrier,” said Gifford who flew many missions during World War II.
For more than a few seconds there was total silence.
“When we realized we were safe we erupted in cheers,” Hundley passionately recalled. “We jumped out the back and were like little kids. We threw snowballs at each other and the pilots.”
Upon landing, Garmaker said, Hundley jumped up and shouted, “I live to love again!”
Hundley claimed Garmaker, an offseason insurance agent, sold teammates polices during the flight.
“I wish I were that clever,” Garmaker said, laughing long and loud. “It’s not true. But, please, leave it in; don’t take that part out.”
One of the first people the Lakers stumbled upon when their feet hit the knee-deep snow was the town undertaker. “I’m not shucking you,” said Hawkins. “The guy declared, ‘Thought I had some business tonight, boys.’”
Fire engines, police cars, trucks, and autos lined the field. The 22 passengers and crew were transported to the Burke Motor Inn, owned and managed by Robert A. Wright. Last to leave the site, Pollard rode up front and upright in the hearse.
On the coffee shop placemat was a map and a picture of an ear peeled back. In bold letters it proclaimed Iowa the Tall Corn State. Hundley boasts two placemats (now laminated) signed by team members and the two pilots. Hawkins has one, but isn’t sure where it might be.
There were no telephones in the rooms, so Pollard and his players lined up in front of three pay booths outside the office. Loved ones needed to be notified what had happened, and that everything was copasetic.
Dubbed “Desert Head” by Hundley because he was balding, Larry Foust was known for imbibing a few after games and telling cockamamie tales to his wife, Joanie.
In the adjacent booth, Hawkins overheard Foust say, “We just had a forced landing in an Iowa cornfield.”
On the other end, Joanie reportedly grumbled: “I don’t think that’s the least bit funny. Call me back when you’re sober.” Then she hung up.
Foust turned to Hawkins and said, “Ah, would you mind asking Doris to call Joanie and tell her we really did land in an Iowa cornfield.”
Foust was traded the year of the crash to St. Louis. He played a dozen seasons, averaging 13.7 points and 9.8 rebounds. Drinking and smoking took its toll; he died in 1984 of a heart attack at age 56.
Pollard, the initial Kangaroo Kid years before Billy Cunningham inherited the nickname, and a Hall of Famer, was 71 when he passed on Jan. 22, 1993. He played eight years (13.2, 5.7) and coached the Chicago Packers (18-62) after being short-circuited (14-25) by the Lakers.
LaRusso played 10 seasons (15.6, 9.4) and was 67 when he died on July 9, 2004, from Parkinson’s disease.
Krebs retired (averaging 8.9 and 6.2 for seven seasons) after the 1963-64 campaign. He died May 6, 1965, three years younger than his self-fulfilling prophecy. Asked by a neighbor to help with a half-fallen tree, they cut it and leaned it against the house. As Krebs walked away a gust of wind blew it down, crushing his chest and skull.
Ellis, who had been a freshman at Niagara when Hubie Brown was a senior, played two seasons (5.1, 5.2) for the Lakers. He continued to compete in organized tournaments (winning senior Olympic, national, state and sectional titles) until almost 70, when he moved in with his daughter three years ago in Indianapolis.
Selvy, who’d scored 100 points in a game for Furman, hung tough (10.8, 3.7 and 2.8 assists) for 11 seasons. He fathered three bonus babies after Leslie, has nine grandchildren and is raising the 13-year-old in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Leonard played seven seasons (9.9, 2.9, 3.3) and coached the ABA Pacers to three titles. In his 24th year as the team’s radio color commentator, he’s committed to one last full schedule.
Hundley’s 8-season tenure as a Laker (8.4, 3.3, 3.4) was surpassed by a broadcasting career, five with New Orleans, 35 with Utah that earned him the Curt Gowdy award. With nothing left to accomplish, he’s retiring to Arizona at season’s end.
Hawkins played 10 seasons (8.7, 6.0) before becoming an NBC announcer, both nationally and locally in Los Angeles. His jazz show is rated No. 1 in the country and No. 1 for its time slot. He serves on boards, consults and does speaking engagements. “If it moves, I talk to it,” he said.
Baylor was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977 after averaging 27.4, 13.5 and 4.3 over 14 seasons. Only Wilt Chamberlain’s boasted more extravagant statistics. Enough said!
Garmaker (13.3, 4.2, 3.2 in seven seasons) lives in Tulsa, Okla. Ten days after the landing, he was traded to the Knicks for $25,000 and Ray Felix, allowing Short to make payroll that month. Some 20 years later, Garmaker’s real estate company was buying apartments in St. Paul, Minn. With the weekend looming, the guy who needed to close the deal left the city for home.
Told by a secretary her boss would arrive there in 45 minutes and to call him then, Garmaker inquired, where he’d be calling? “Carroll, Iowa,” she replied.
When the two men finished their business, Garmaker asked: “By the way, do you remember hearing about a plane that went down 20 years ago in your area?”
“I sure do! Jeepers, you landed in my cornfield!” Steffes blurted.
No one’s quite sure exactly when, but the Lakers honored the Ullman, whose wife, Eva Olofson, was the plane’s lone stewardess, at a subsequent home game. Short presented him with a plaque that cost about $15. Its inscription: “To Colonel Vernon Ullman: May You Have Eternal Safe Landings.”
For their part, the players contributed $50 apiece, in those days, the price of a gift of life.
I’m unsure what’s more mind-blowing, the achievement of the two pilots or the FAA suspending Ullman’s license following its investigation. Prior to landing, the pilots debated whether the wheels should be up or down.
Regulations specified a belly flop in such a situation, which very well may have precluded the wheels from hitting the wire.
Ullman ordered wheels down instead to avert skidding into a potential highway or other unknown complications. The next day, the team bus to Minneapolis passed the cornfield. Around 75 yards in front of the ‘unsullied’ plane was a steep ditch to disaster.
Less than a week later, several hundred people watched as a bulldozer cleared the cornfield to stubble. The FAA had commissioned another pilot to fly the DC-3 back home. Ullman fought that command decision. Again he prevailed against all odds.
“I put it in there,” he said. “I’m going to take it out.”
Ullman died of a brain tumor in March 1965.
As it turned out, I only knew peripheral details about what actually happened in the cockpit before and during those critical minutes leading up to the laser landing. Had not Gifford reached out to me, I’d still have it distorted all these years later.
For now, let’s deal exclusively with the core of the crisis, as Gifford is alternately ascending and descending to escape the ice, or get below the cloud of snow in hopes of spotting a judiciously safe place to put it down.
Ullman had been a Lt. Colonel in the Navy. Gifford had been a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force, flying fighter jets, then a B29 during World War II. His plane flew overhead the U.S. S. Missouri while Japan signed its surrender on Tokyo Bay, Sept 2, 1945.
Despite their worsening, directionless, flying-on-fumes circumstances, Ullman wanted to continue to find an airport. Gifford wanted to get as low as possible to find an improvised L.Z. Holznagel manned the flashlight and read the altimeter to inform Gifford how many feet they were above sea level.
Holznagel let Gifford know when they were at 1000 feet, then 700, then 600. Abruptly, he alerted Gifford they were at 100 feet.
“You don’t have far down to go when you’re at 100 feet,” he notified me yesterday, chuckling.
“Suddenly, there were trees right in front of my face, and I pulled it up. We were right back in the soup. That definitely gave me an extra blast of adrenalin.
“You know, Peter, strange thing, I’d been flying tours of 30 days at a time not long before. I’d flown planes twice as big as a DC3 throughout Alaska, Panama, Puerto Rico, Bermuda and Newfoundland, and I was always able to find the bottom of the clouds in any kind of weather. I didn’t have a lot of fear until those trees.
“However, I was still l confident in what I was doing. I saw a farm light. I had dodged down for more visibility, and saw barns, silos and windmills. The moon was bright. The snow lighted up the night and we could see ahead. I said, ‘Boy, if there’s anyone up there overlooking us, I could sure use some help. A little later, I saw a Pabst beer sign, and I gave a little thank you above. And then all of a sudden, the town lit up after we’d circled ten times.”
Ullman wanted to touch down on a road they found. Gifford was opposed, because he couldn’t see the power lines. Ullman thought he saw a lake and wanted to land on it. Gifford had spotted a cornfield he felt would provide a cushion.
“I’d flown a crop duster as a kid. I knew the land was flat and there were no rocks, and the stalks wouldn’t hurt the plane.”
Ullman insisted they land on the road. Gifford felt for the cornfield made more sense. Pollard spent a lot of time in the cockpit throughout the flight. He told Ullman to listen to Gifford.
A couple players claimed the plane bounce landed. It did not. Hawkins stated it was the smoothest landing he’d ever experienced.
“We held off telling the way it was for years because we didn’t want to embarrass Vernon and his wife,” Gifford said. “After they died and left no children, we felt it was time to tell what happened. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
On March 7, Holznagel visited Gifford in Minnesota.
“Every time we get together, we give each other big hugs and thanks for saving our respective lives.”
Last night, I received another email from Gifford:
This may not be of interest but in 1937 my brother, Quentin 4 years older than I, had joined the Navy and served on the Battleship, USS Oklahoma. In 1940 I left high school to work on a dairy farm due to the severe depression. That summer, Quentin was home on leave and before returning to his ship, he visited me at work, and asked me to promise I'd return to school, and work hard, and when leaving the Navy he promised to find a way for us to attend college together. I had kept my promise. From then on we were in frequent contact ,and he proudly followed my football and academic activities. Come Pearl Harbor, Quentin went down with the Oklahoma and I KEPT my promise. My hard work had resulted in passing tests to become an Air corps Cadet and left for duty Feb 3 before graduating. I became a pilot and officer in 1944. These events led to a career in Aviation I would not have had if I had not honored my promise to Quentin. My point is, had these events not occurred who would have saved the Lakers? Talk to ya later. Giff