Thursday, February 15, 2018

Nearly Forgotten Jet Crash Wiped Out US Ice Skating Team

The 1961 U.S. Figure Skating team boards ill fated Sabena Flight 548 to Brussels.  Team manager Deane McMinn holds the sign, to his immediate left was U.S. Women's Champ Laurence Owen, her mother and coach Maribel Vincent Owen holding coat and satchel, and sister Maribel Owen.

We are in the midst of the Winter Olympics—a particularly welcome diversion from these bleak days of America in despair, division, and crisis/scandal of the Day at the White House.  For many of us, your scribe included, figure skating is a highlight of the games.  While we admire the graceful and breathtakingly accomplished athletes from around the world, most of us root for American skaters.   
The U.S. has already won a Bronze Medal in the Team Event, dominated this year by those Trudeau loving Canadians, leaving us with a double reason for jealousy.  And most of us already have our favorites—19 year-old supposedly out of no where U.S. Women’s Champion  Bradie Tennell, our local girl from Carpentersville; Mirai Nagasu who has already become the first American woman to nail the triple axel leap at the Olympics; two time Men’s National Champion who has accomplished five quadruple axles in a single program and is the one American skater favored to take a Gold Medal; cheeky Adam Rippon, the first openly Gay U.S. athlete to qualify for the Olympic who has stood up to and mocked homophobe bigot Vice President Mike Pense; and the Ice Dancing brother/sister act Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani among others. 

Caprentersville's own Brdie Tennell is already making her mark at this year's Winter Olympics.
But in all of the hoopla of Olympic coverage chances are that the U.S. Skating team’s darkest day will go unmentioned on its 57th anniversary today.
The 1961 U.S. Ice Skating Team, the dominant force in international competition had reason to beware the Ides of February as they winged their way to the World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia.  29 athletes, coaches, judges, officials, and family members departed Idlewild International Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport) in New York for the first leg of their journey on a Belgian Sabena Airlines 707 jet to Brussels.

A Sabena Belgium Airways 707 like the ill fated airliner.
After an uneventful flight the aircraft was approaching Zaventem Airport at 10:00 a.m. local time when it was waved off at the last moment because a small plane was on the runway.  It pulled up sharply and made three circles of the field in an attempt to land on another runway.  the aircraft climbed to 1,500 feet and was in a near vertical bank. It then leveled wings, abruptly pitched up, lost speed, and spiraled nose down towards the ground. Where it crashed and burned in a marshy area by a farm field near the village of Berg less than two miles from the airport at 10:04 a.m.  All 72 passengers and crew and a farmer on the ground were killed instantly.
The accident came just a little more than two years after the Boeing 707, the pride of the American aviation industry and the first completely successful jet airliners capable of international, trans-oceanic flight, went into service.  It was also the first deadly crash of the plane in regular passenger service.  It remains to this day the worst civilian aviation crash in Belgium history.

The wreckage of the Sabena 707.
Given the more primitive state of crash investigation techniques in those days Belgian and American experts were unable to prove a cause for the catastrophe although a mix of a failure of the stabilizer-adjusting mechanism, pilot error, and inadequate control of ground traffic at the airport were suspected contributing causes.
Belgian national pride in its flag carrier was deeply wounded and almost immediately King Baudouin I and Queen Fabiola personally rushed to the scene.  From America young President John F. Kennedy, in office less than a month, extended his condolences to the victims and to the nation of Belgium.  His reaction was beyond pro forma.  Pairs skater Dudley Richards who spent summers in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts was a personal friend of the Kennedy family.
When the international teams gathering in Prague for the Championships there was shock, anguish, and grief.  Many members of the U.S. were well known in the close knit if competitive world of international figure skating.  And several were pillars of the sport and of the American team which had consistently dominated world competition throughout the 1950’s and at the 1960 Winter Olympics held at Squaw Valley, California a year earlier when the US. Team took home two Gold and two Bronze Medals.  Out of respect to the U.S. team the International Skating Union canceled the Prague championships, the only peace time disruption of the competition.
Both figure skating as a sport and the media that covered it were much different than the glitz of today.  In the compulsories male and female competitors still had to meticulously trace out actual numeric figures on the ice in a painstaking process that was as much fun to watch a paint drying.  Most of the spectacular leaps and spinning jumps that are the highlight of modern competitions had not been invented or introduced.  Performances were dominated by long, graceful loops and turns, dashes across the ice, and various spins as highlights.  Ice Dancing much more resembled ballroom dancing on skates.  Throws and lifts were limited in the Pairs event.
Most American’s did not see much figure skating or know much about it beyond grainy newsreel clips, old Sonja Henie and the tours of the popular Ice Capades and Ice Follies that played major city indoor sports arenas and featured former amateur champions.  When the Winter Olympics came to Squaw Valley in 1960 they became the first games covered by television.  CBS-TV broadcast 15-minute to half-hour taped highlights of the games most evenings and limited live action including the Women’s and Men’s Figure Skating Finals.
Blond Carol Heiss, the 1956 Silver Medalist and five-time World Champion, was the stand-out star at Squaw Valley easily winning the Gold Medal skating, as was then customary, on an outdoor rink.  She was the most dominant female skater since Hennie in the 20’s and ‘30’s and helped create a solid fan base for figure skating, especially among adoring young girls, a demographic not to be denied around the family’s single TV set.  Heiss retired after the games to go pro with ice shows and to star in the immortal feature film Snow White and the Three Stooges.
ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the Saturday afternoon staple that would regularly bring amateur completions like figure skating into American homes between Olympics did not premier until April 1961, a little more than two months after the plane crash.

Laurence Owen made the cover of Sports Illustrated days before her death.
There was, however, growing excitement about figure skating in the U.S. in no small part due to the elfin 16-year old who rose to replace Heiss as National Champion—Laurence Owen with her bobbed brown hair, infectious smile, and a refreshing, unconventional performances.  Owen won the 1961 United States Figure Skating Championships in Colorado Springs on January 29 and the North American Figure Skating Championships in Philadelphia on February 12.  The adoring press dubbed her the Winchester Pixie for her Massachusetts home town.  She was featured in a color photo in a bright red costume on the cover of Sports Illustrated which hit the newsstands right before her flight to Brussels.  Traveling with her were her mother and coach 1932 Olympic Bronze medalist, a two-time World medalist (1928 silver, 1930 bronze), the 1937 North American Champion, and a nine-time U.S. National Champion Maribel Vincent Owen and sister Pairs skater Maribel Owen.  All three were interred at historic Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, resting place of many of New England’s literary and Unitarian elite. 
Maribel Owen’s Pairs Champion partner Dudley Richards, reigning U.S. Men’s Champion Bradley Lord, Ice dancing Champions Diane Sherbloom and Larry Pierce, Men’s Silver Medalist Gregory Kelley, Women’s Silver Medalist Stephanie Westerfeld, and Bronze Medalist Rhode Lee Michelson all perished in the crash.
Other losses included Male singles Gregory Kelley and Douglas Ramsey; pairs teams Ila Ray Hadley and Ray Hadley, Jr. and Laurie Jean Hickox and William Holmes Hickox; Ice Dancers Dona Lee Carrier and Roger Campbell and Patricia Dineen and Robert Dineen; coaches Edi Scholdan, Dan Ryan, William Kipp, and William Swallender; judges Harold Hartshorne and Edward LeMaire, Team Manager Deane McMinn, Referee Walter S. Powell, and Edi Scholdan’s son Jimmy Scholdan.

Pairs duo Lauried Jean and William Holmes Hickox.
It was a devastating loss to the U.S. skating program that was felt for years after.  Not only was a whole generation of bright young talent wiped out, but so were most of the top coaches in the sport.  In the 1964 Winter Games at Insbrook, Austria the best the U.S. Team could do was Scott Allen’s Bronze Medal.  It wasn’t until 1968 when Peggy Flemming led the Team with a Gold Medal and Tim Wood took home a Silver at Grenoble, France that the U.S. was truly a top competitor again.

Few have ever seen the 50th Anniversary documentary film Rise 1961.
Yet the tragedy is hardly remembered.  To remedy that the U.S. Figure Skating Association commissioned a documentary film, Rise 1961 to commemorate the crash’s 50th anniversary in 2011.  Focusing on the relationship of Maribel Vincent Owen played by Patricia Clarkson and her daughters including Dakota Fanning as Laurence Owen.  But most of the film is talking head interviews with major figure skating stars who knew those killed or who rose in their wake—Brian Boitano, Peggy Flemming, Dorothy Hamill, and Scott Hamilton.  But although availablebut hard to find—on DVD, the film was only shown publicly three times—on February 17, 2011, with one encore performance on March 7, 2011, and on the Versus network on October 22, 2011.  
Good luck finding much more…

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