Southern Airways Flight 932

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Southern Airways Flight 932 was a chartered Southern Airways Douglas DC-9 domestic United States commercial jet flight from Stallings Field (ISO) in Kinston, North Carolina, to Huntington Tri-State Airport/Milton J. Ferguson Field (HTS) near Kenova and Ceredo, West Virginia. At 7:36 p.m. on November 14, 1970, the aircraft crashed into a hill just short of the Tri-State Airport, killing all 75 people on board in what has been recognized as "the worst sports related air tragedy in U.S. history".[1][2]

Southern Airways Flight 932
Southern Airways DC-9 (6146173132).jpg
A Southern Airways Douglas DC-9 similar to the aircraft involved in the accident
DateNovember 14, 1970 (1970-11-14)
SummaryControlled flight into terrain due to pilot error
SiteOn approach to runway 11 at Tri-State Airport in Huntington, West Virginia, United States
38°22′27″N 82°34′42″W / 38.37417°N 82.57833°W / 38.37417; -82.57833Coordinates: 38°22′27″N 82°34′42″W / 38.37417°N 82.57833°W / 38.37417; -82.57833
Aircraft typeDouglas DC-9-31
OperatorSouthern Airways
Flight originKinston Regional Jetport
DestinationTri-State Airport

The plane was carrying 37 members of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, eight members of the coaching staff, 25 boosters, and five flight crew members.[3] The team was returning home after a 17–14 loss to the East Carolina Pirates at Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, North Carolina.[4]

At the time, Marshall's athletic teams rarely traveled by plane, since most away games were within easy driving distance of the campus. The team originally planned to cancel the flight, but changed plans and chartered the Southern Airways DC-9.[5] The accident is the deadliest tragedy affecting any sports team in U.S. history.[6] It was the second college football team plane crash in a little over a month. Wichita State's team plane crashed in Colorado just 43 days earlier killing 14 players and 31 people overall.

Aircraft and crewEdit

The aircraft was a 95-seat, twin jet engine Douglas DC-9-30 with tail registration N97S. The airliner's crew was Captain Frank H. Abbot, First Officer Jerry Smith, and flight attendants Pat Vaught and Charlene Poat. All were qualified for the flight. Another employee of Southern Airways, Danny Deese, was aboard the flight to coordinate charter activities. This flight was the only flight that year for the Marshall University football team.[2]

Events leading to the crashEdit

The original proposal to charter the flight was refused because it would exceed "the takeoff limitations of their aircraft". The subsequent negotiations resulted in a reduction of the weight of passengers and baggage...and the charter flight was scheduled."[7] The airliner left Stallings Field at Kinston, North Carolina, and the flight proceeded to Huntington without incident. The crew established radio contact with air traffic controllers at 7:23 pm with instructions to descend to 5,000 feet (1,500 m).[4] The controllers advised the crew that there was "rain, fog, smoke and a ragged ceiling" at the airport, making landing more difficult but possible. At 7:34 p.m., the airliner's crew reported passing Tri-State Airport's outer marker. The controller gave them clearance to land. The aircraft began its normal descent after passing the outer marker, but did not arrest its descent and hold altitude at 1,240 feet (380 m), as required by the assigned instrument approach procedure. Instead, the descent continued for another 300 feet (91 m) for unknown reasons, apparently without either crewmember actually seeing the airport lights or runway. In the transcript of their cockpit communications in the final minutes, the pilots briefly debated that their autopilot had "captured" for a glide slope descent, although the airport was only equipped with a localizer. The report also noted that the craft approached a refinery in the final 30 seconds before impact, which "could have...affected...a visual illusion produced by the difference in the elevation of the refinery and the airport," which was nearly 300 feet (91 m) higher than the refinery--and that only after a craft would pass over a few intervening hills. The co-pilot, monitoring the altimeter called out, "It's beginning to lighten up a little bit on the ground here hundred feet.... We're two hundred above [the descent vector]," and the charter coordinator replied, "Bet 'll be a missed approach." The corresponding flight recorder shows that the craft descended another 220 feet (67 m) in elevation within these 12 seconds, and the co-pilot calls out "four hundred" and agrees with the pilot they are on the correct "approach." However, in the next second the co-pilot quickly calls out new readings, "hundred and twenty-six ... HUNDRED," and the sounds of impact immediately follow.[7]


The airliner continued on final approach to Tri-State Airport when it collided with the tops of trees on a hillside 5,543 feet (1,690 m) west of runway 11 (now runway 12).[2][7] The plane burst into flames and created a swath of charred ground 95 feet (29 m) wide and 279 feet (85 m) long. According to the official NTSB report, the accident was "unsurvivable". The aircraft "dipped to the right, almost inverted and had crashed into a hollow 'nose-first'".[4] By the time the plane came to a stop, it was 4,219 feet (1,286 m) short of the runway and 275 feet (84 m) south of the middle marker. Although the airport runway has since been lengthened past its original threshold, making historical measurements more difficult, the NTSB official report provides that "the accident occurred during hours of darkness at 38° 22' 27" N. latitude and 82° 34' 42" W. longitude." The report additionally notes, "most of the fuselage was melted or reduced to a powder-like substance; however, several large pieces were scattered throughout the burned area."[7] The remains of six passengers were never identified.[4]


The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the accident and their final report was issued on April 14, 1972. In the report the NTSB concluded that the probable cause was that "...the accident was the result of a descent below Minimum Descent Altitude during a nonprecision approach under adverse operating conditions, without visual contact with the runway environment...". They further stated, "The Board has not been able to determine the reason for the (greater) descent, although the two most likely explanations are an improper use of cockpit instrumentation data, or (b) an altimetry system error."[7]:36 At least one source says that water that had seeped into the plane's altimeter could have thrown off its height readings, leading the pilots to believe the plane was higher than was actually the case.[8]

The board made three recommendations as a result of this accident, including recommendations for heads-up displays, ground proximity warning devices, and surveillance and inspection of flight operations.

Subsequent events at MarshallEdit

On November 15, 1970, a memorial service was held at the indoor, 8,500-seat Veterans Memorial Fieldhouse with moments of silence, remembrances, and prayers.[4] The following Saturday another memorial service was held at the outdoor, 18,000-seat Fairfield Stadium. Across the nation many expressed their condolences. Classes at Marshall, along with numerous events and shows by the Marshall Artists Series (and the football team's game against the Ohio Bobcats), were canceled and government offices were closed. A mass funeral was held at the Field House and many of the dead were buried at the Spring Hill Cemetery, some together because bodies were not identifiable.

The effects of the crash on Huntington went far beyond the Marshall campus. Because it was the Herd's only charter flight of the season, boosters and prominent citizens were on the plane, including a city councilman, a state legislator, and four physicians. Seventy children lost at least one parent in the crash, with 18 of them left orphaned.[9]

The crash of Flight 932 almost led to the discontinuation of the university's football program. New coach Jack Lengyel, Marshall University students, and Thundering Herd football fans convinced acting Marshall President Donald N. Dedmon to reconsider canceling the program in late 1970. In the weeks afterward, Lengyel was aided in his attempts by receivers coach Red Dawson.[10] Dawson was a coach from the previous staff who had driven back from the East Carolina game along with Gail Parker, a freshman coach. Parker flew to the game, but didn't fly back, having switched places with Deke Brackett, another coach. Dawson and Parker were buying boiled peanuts at a country store in rural Virginia when they heard the news over the radio. Before the trip, they were scheduled to go on a recruiting mission to Ferrum College after the ECU — Marshall game (in an effort to recruit Billy Joe Mantooth, who eventually transferred to WVU instead). After the crash, Red Dawson helped bring together a group of players who were on the junior varsity football team during the 1970 season, as well as students and athletes from other sports, to form a 1971 football team.[11] Many had never played football before.

Head coach Rick Tolley was among the crash victims.[11] Jack Lengyel was named to take Tolley's place on March 12, 1971, after Dick Bestwick, the first choice for the job, backed out after just one week and returned to Georgia Tech. Lengyel, who came from a coaching job at the College of Wooster, was hired by recently hired athletic director Joe McMullen. Lengyel played for McMullen at the University of Akron in the 1950s.

The Marshall University football team only won two games during the 1971 season, against Xavier and Bowling Green.[11] Jack Lengyel led the Thundering Herd to a 9–33 record during his tenure, which ended after the 1974 season.


Memorial at Spring Hill Cemetery in Charleston, West Virginia to the victims of the 1970 plane crash

Marshall University President John G. Barker and Vice President Donald Dedmon appointed a Memorial Committee soon after the crash.[12] The committee decided upon one major memorial within the campus, a plaque and memorial garden at Fairfield Stadium, and a granite cenotaph at the Spring Hill Cemetery; the Memorial Student Center was designated a memorial as well.

On November 12, 1972, the Memorial Fountain was dedicated at the entrance of the Memorial Student Center.[12] The sculpture's designer, Harry Bertoia, created the $25,000 memorial that incorporated bronze, copper tubing and welding rods. The 6500-pound, 13-foot-high (2900-kilogram, four-meter-high) sculpture was completed within a year and a half. A plaque was placed on the base on August 10, 1973, reading:

They shall live on in the hearts of their families and friends forever and
this memorial records their loss to the university and the community.[12]

Every year, on the anniversary of the crash, the fountain is shut off during a commemorative ceremony and not activated again until the following spring.

Each year on the anniversary of the crash, those who died are mourned in a ceremony on the Marshall University campus in Huntington, West Virginia. A number of the victims are buried in a grave site in the Spring Hill Cemetery in Huntington. 20th Street between Joan C. Edwards Stadium, Marshall's current on-campus football stadium, and Spring Hill Cemetery was renamed Marshall Memorial Boulevard in honor of the crash victims.

On November 11, 2000, the We Are Marshall Memorial Bronze was dedicated.[13] The bronze 17×23-foot (5×7-meter) statue was created by artist Burl Jones of Sissonville, West Virginia, and cost $150,000. It is based upon ideas by John and Ann Krieger of Huntington. It was donated to the university by Marshall fans and is attached to Joan C. Edwards Stadium on the west façade. It was unveiled to thousands 90 minutes before the game with the Miami University RedHawks.

On December 11, 2006, a memorial plaque was dedicated at the plane crash site.[14] The ceremony featured guest speakers William "Red" Dawson and Jack Hardin. The Ceredo and Kenova fire departments were recognized at the event.

The memorial plaque reads:

On Nov. 14, 1970, 75 people died in the worst sports related air tragedy in U.S. history, when a Southern Airways DC-9 crashed into a hillside nearby.
The victims included 36 Marshall University football players, 9 coaches and administrators, 25 fans and air crew of 5.
No one survived this horrific disaster.[1]

Another plaque memorializing the 1970 Marshall football team was unveiled at East Carolina University on the same day and can be seen at the guest team entrance of Dowdy–Ficklen Stadium. Featured speakers were Chancellor Steve Ballard, Athletic Director Terry Holland, Pirates’ broadcaster Jeff Charles, and Marshall President Stephen Kopp.

A memorial bell tower is being planned for a location on WV 75 near Exit 1 along Interstate 64.[14]

November 14, 2013, marked the first time that Marshall had played a road game on an anniversary of the disaster. As a memorial to the 75 victims, the Marshall players wore the number 75 on their helmets.[15] The tribute was repeated later that season, when Marshall met Rice in the 2013 Conference USA Football Championship game.

Marshall will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the air disaster in their football season opener on August 29, 2020. The opponent will be East Carolina—the same team that defeated Marshall before the disaster took place.


  • Marshall University: Ashes to Glory, a documentary by Deborah Novak and John Witek released on November 18, 2000, about the crash and the subsequent recovery of the Marshall football program in the decades following.
  • We Are Marshall, a film dramatizing the crash of Flight 932 and its repercussions, premiered on December 12, 2006, in Huntington, West Virginia. It starred Matthew McConaughey as Jack Lengyel and Matthew Fox as Red Dawson. The DVD of the film was released September 18, 2007.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "Marshall crash still looms after 36 years". Archived from the original on September 13, 2011. Retrieved May 26, 2007.
  2. ^ a b c Wilson, Amy (December 18, 2006). "The night Huntington died". Lexington Herald-Leader. Retrieved December 18, 2006.
  3. ^ "Plane crash devastates Marshall University". Retrieved September 25, 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e Withers, Bob (December 19, 2006). "The story of the 1970 Marshall Plane Crash". The Herald-Dispatch. Archived from the original on December 4, 2010. Retrieved November 15, 2010.
  5. ^ Drehs, Wayne (November 13, 2000). "Tragedy litters the sports landscape: Marshall remains the worst sports-related air disaster". Huntington, West Virginia: ESPN.
  6. ^ Prince, Justin (November 16, 2010). "Reporter recalls memories from worst sports- related air tragedy in US history". The Parthenon. Archived from the original on October 19, 2013.
  7. ^ a b c d e "NTSB Aircraft Accident Report - Southern Airways Inc. DC-9, N97S, Tri-State Airport, Huntington, West Virginia, November 14, 1970" (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board. April 14, 1972. NTSB-AAR-72-11.
  8. ^ The Marshall Story, College Football's Greatest Comeback, Henchard Press, Ltd. 2006 pp. 36–37.
  9. ^ Alipour, Sam (December 20, 2006). "A story Hollywood gets right". ESPN.
  10. ^ "Red Dawson helped mold 1971 team". The Herald-Dispatch. December 19, 2006. Archived from the original on July 22, 2011. Retrieved November 15, 2010.
  11. ^ a b c Walsh, David (November 13, 2005). "Emotions of tragedy drew Lengyel to Marshall". The Herald-Dispatch. Archived from the original on July 22, 2011. Retrieved November 15, 2010.
  12. ^ a b c Withers, Bob (December 19, 2006). "Memorial Fountain designed to represent 'upward growth, immortality, eternality'". The Herald-Dispatch. Archived from the original on July 22, 2011. Retrieved November 15, 2010.
  13. ^ Wellman, Dave (November 12, 2000). "Marshall Memorial Bronze unveiled to mix of emotions". The Herald-Dispatch. Archived from the original on July 22, 2011. Retrieved November 15, 2010.
  14. ^ a b Pinkston, Antwon. "Kenova to dedicate crash memorial Monday." December 10, 2006 Herald-Dispatch [Huntington]. December 11, 2006 [1][permanent dead link].
  15. ^ Strauss, Chris (November 14, 2013). "43 years later, Marshall still honors memory of fallen players". USA Today.

External linksEdit