October 4, 1975, Wilmington, North Carolina
On October 4, 1975, five men boarded a private jet in Charlotte, North Carolina destined for Wilmington, North Carolina. David Crockett was the color commentator for NWA World Championship Wrestling and the son of Jim Crockett, Sr., the owner of Jim Crockett Promotions. Bob Bruggers was a former National Football League player turned wrestler. Ric Flair was an up and coming star in the Mid-Atlantic territory. Tim Woods was a popular babyface masked wrestler known as Mr. Wrestling. Johnny Valentine was the most well-known of the group, one of the top wrestlers in the business and the reigning US Heavyweight champion who was scheduled to wrestle against Dory Funk, Jr. a week later for the NWA World Heavyweight championship. The five were headed to Wilmington for an evening show at Legion Stadium. Their flight leaving out of Charlotte was to take only 45 minutes and they headed out in beautiful blue skies. Pilot Joseph Michael Farkas had struggled to get the plane off of the ground due to the weight of the bulky wrestlers. He decided to dump some of the fuel in order to lighten the weight in the Cessna 310 aircraft. In the midst of their trip, however, things became anything but calm.
Flair sat to Fargas right, with Woods, Valentine, Bruggers and Crockett in two rows behind them. Valentine and Woods were playing chess when Flair began complaining about being uncomfortable seated next to the pilot. Valentine got tired of hearing him and agreed to change seats with him. Halfway through the flight, the plane’s left engine started to sputter. Valentine turned and looked over his shoulder and shouted “We’re out of fuel” before bursting into laughter. He quickly realized that this was not a laughing matter when Fargas tried to transfer fuel from the reserve tank but found it was empty. Farkas lost control of the plane and it began to nosedive and the pilot panicked and began to scream hysterically. Valentine leaned across and slapped him in an attempt to force him to regain his senses. Farkas regained his composure enough to regain control and level the plane out. As it silently glided across the sky the occupants could only hear whispers of the air hitting the jet. Suddenly they could see themselves at the levels of the treetops right before the plane began clipping the trees. Farkas was able to avoid a water tower near the New Hanover Correctional Center prison, but could not keep it from plummeting straight down at 100 mph. At the last second the plane’s tail hit a wire that leveled it slightly so that it did not smash nose first into the ground. On impact, all of the occupants and their seats smashed forward, crushing Valentine in front of them and sending Farkas’ head through the windshield. They were rushed to New Hanover County Hospital in Wilmington.
Bob Bruggers suffered spinal fractures and a broken ankle. He had a rod inserted into his spinal column and was able to leave the hospital in three weeks. While he would recover enough to where he could resume his career, he instead accepted an insurance settlement and walked away from the wrestling business. David Crockett suffered a dislocated shoulder, a severe concussion, a laceration in his mouth, two crushed teeth and a slight compression fracture in his spine. Ric Flair suffered a compression fracture of three of his vertebrae and was told he could never wrestle again. Michael Farkas, a Vietnam veteran, suffered traumatic head injuries and never awoke from a coma and died nearly a year after the crash (although conflicting reports state that he died after only two months). Johnny Valentine saw his career ended as he was left paralyzed from the waist down after a bone fracture in his back became wedged into his spinal column.
Tim Woods (Mr. Wrestling) suffered bruised and cracked ribs (a result of Crockett’s head smashing through the back of Woods seat), but walked out of the hospital the next day. In an era of kayfabe, he had checked into the hospital under his birth name (George Burrell Woodin) so that fans would not learn that he was traveling with Johnny Valentine with whom he was feuding at the time. Within two weeks he was back in the ring against Superstar Billy Graham, despite enormous pain, dispelling any “rumors” that he was actually a victim in the plane crash. Flair would later cite Woods for his courage in returning to the ring, calling him the man who “saved Mid-Atlantic Wrestling.” Incredibly, after getting out of the hospital, he caught a plane back to Charlotte and that plane also encountered a problem. “So I got in the plane and the plane landed in Charlotte,” Woods remembered. “Don’t you know the brakes failed when we were on the end of the runway. This is the next day and I’m thinking ‘Holy Cow! What’s going to happen next?”
When he was first admitted to the emergency room, Flair begged a bystander to find his shaving kit and remove the note and phone number with the name “Sheila” on it, lest his wife come across it. Later, when Wahoo McDaniel showed up at the hospital to visit Flair, he had to push his way past hospital personnel who believed that Wahoo was legitimately there to further injure Flair. Flair was sidelined for eight months and his bodyweight had dropped from a beefy 255 lbs. down to 180 lbs. As bad as things look for him, Flair used the opportunity to change the altitude of his career, modeling himself after Buddy Rogers to become the new “Nature Boy.” In the days after the plane crash, nobody could have predicted that he would one day be considered the greatest professional wrestler of his time.
The crash was the result of human error. The pilot had a difficult time getting the plane off of the ground in Charlotte because of the bulk of the wrestlers. Instead of making them change seats so as to distribute the weight evenly, he chose to dump fuel in order to lighten the load of the plane. Although this was not unheard of for pilots to do, it created a dangerous situation. According to Valentine, when the left engine began to sputter “The pilot changed over to the wing tank, and both engines started. One quit, and then the other quit. He had forgotten, though, that one of the engines was still running on the main tank. Had he switched back, we would have made it in on one engine, because we were not very far. But it was a mistake that ruined us. He was a military pilot, but he panicked.” Crockett agreed that they could have landed safely, saying that they crashed only 100 feet from the runway. The crash cast a pall over the business for the territory. With two of its main stars out injured, revenues swindle for Crockett, but when Flair returned and began a major feud with Wahoo, it set business straight and launched the brilliant phase of the career of Ric Flair.
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