Butler County Times Gazette
  • Belinda Larsen: 'Mayday Over Wichita' offers evidence, insights to 1965 tragedy

  • New book sheds light on almost forgotten tragedy.
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  • A newly released book by historian D.W. Carter tells the story of the worst aviation disaster in our state’s history. Mayday Over Wichita: The Worst Military Aviation Disaster in Kansas History promises to keep any reader spellbound.
    The intriguing book contains photos and eye witness recollections of the tragedy that occurred on a cold Kansas January morning - an event that seems to have been almost forgotten.
    After nearly 50 years the horrific tragedy is closely examined and Carter expertly dispels myths and rumors that have swirled around the four-minute flight over Wichita on Jan. 16, 1965.
    When a U.S. Air Force KC-135 tanker carrying 31,000 gallons of jet fuel crashed into a predominately African-American northeast Wichita neighborhood, it left the seven member crew and 23 on the ground dead, 17 severely burned and injured, and many homeless.
    The book chronicles the events leading up to the jet flying low over the city after taking off from McConnell Air Force Base, jettisoning fuel and finally rolling and crashing nose first into the 2100 block of N. Piatt. It buried itself 15 feet into the ground. Had the plane skidded on its belly, the casualty number would have been higher and the destruction more widespread.
    The worst part was the eruption of 50 tons of jet fuel. Flames were everywhere - the inferno covered nearly five acres. Some residents believed a bomb had been dropped and others simply believed that hell had been unleashed.
    In an interview with the author, he shared how his book happened, “The Piatt Street plane crash has long since been shrouded in mystery. I first heard about this tragic event while I was stationed at McConnell Air Force Base in 2003. Shortly after my arrival to Kansas, the story of the disaster, to the extent there was one, stuck with me for many years. But when I went to the library to find out more about the tragedy, as any historian would, I came up empty-handed. I just couldn’t believe that a disaster of that magnitude, taking so many lives and affecting so many others, had scarcely any sources,” he continued, “I wanted to know who they (the seven men on board the plane and those 23 civilians on the ground) were and why this happened. And like a splinter that gets caught in your finger, I just couldn’t stop the irritation until I had at least researched the crash to pull out the answers and find relief. I felt drawn to it. Consequently, when I traveled to the archives seeking answers—looking over the photographs and reading first-hand accounts—my desire to write this story was further kindled. It was then that I knew it had to be done. There was no turning back.”
    Page 2 of 2 - The reader is provided insight to the crew - none of whom were from Wichita - and their mission. The book also examines the police and fire response and how Wichita was more prepared for an aviation disaster than perhaps any other city at the time. The city’s disaster plan was ahead of others.
    At the time of the disaster, the Air Force was reluctant to attribute the crash to pilot error, and Boeing was going to be hard-pressed for any admission of mechanical failure. Carter explains why the plane crashed and how it took years of research and crash studies determine the probable cause of the disaster.
    “As I dived deeper into the research, I found that there were several reasons why the plane crash was ignored. Being that it was 1965, there were tons of issues going on in the country that just swallowed up this event: the recent assassination of President Kennedy roughly a year and a half before, everything that was going on with civil rights, the escalating Vietnam War, the issues of race, and the fact that this happened in the worst area of Wichita in terms of socioeconomic development. The people from the neighborhood I interviewed over the years always highlighted the fact that it [the plane crash] never attracted major headlines or anything like that because of the area where it happened. So naturally, when confronted with so many rumors, conspiracy theories, and lingering questions, I was intrigued to find answers and seek closure for the victims’ families. But the amazing story that developed, and the people who have reached out to me from across the United States expressing their gratitude and sharing their experiences, was definitely more than I expected. I quickly discovered that this was much more than just a plane crash. It was a defining moment in Kansas history; a story that needed to be told.”
    Another facet of the tragedy is the length of time that passed before a memorial in honor of those who perished was built.
    On Jan. 14, 2011, following close to 50 years of little public recognition, a large granite memorial was dedicated just south of 20th and Piatt St. It stands almost 30 feet from the point of impact and where homes were consumed by fire. Fundraisers and grass-roots campaigning helped make the dream possible.
    About the author
    D.W. Carter is a historian, author and educator, specializing in military and social history. Originally from Kentucky, he now considers himself a transplant Kansan and resides in Topeka.
     
     
    Belinda Larsen is the Gazette Editor and can be reached at: blarsen@augustagazette.com

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