Crashing down in Baltimore In 1976, plane landed in stands after Steelers landed hard on Colts

January 13, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

It was Dec. 19, 1976, and less than 10 minutes after the Pittsburgh Steelers had crushed the Baltimore Colts, 40-14 in an AFC playoff game at Memorial Stadium.

Veteran safety Bruce Laird was in the shower, trying to wash away the memory of an embarrassing defeat when someone shouted, "A plane just crashed in the upper deck!"

"I really cursed the guy," Laird recalled. "I said, 'After all the bleep that happened to us today, you've got to tell a sick joke like that?' But it turns out, he was telling the truth. Incredible!"

Yes, truly amazing.

Donald Kroner, a former charter pilot, had crashed a rented, low-wing, blue-and-white Piper Cherokee into the upper deck of the end zone, losing a wing in the process.

Kicker Toni Linhart, now owner of an advertising display firm in Linthicum, remembers running onto the field in his shorts with punter David Lee to see the improbable sight of a plane resting nose down in the stands.

Miraculously, no one was seriously injured. Most of the capacity crowd of 60,020 had left the one-sided contest early or were headed down the exit ramps when Kroner, then 33, made his impromptu landing.

Kroner, who had been fired as an MTA bus driver, escaped with only minor facial cuts, and three city policemen were treated for smoke inhalation.

"I was walking down to the Colts' dressing room and heard this rumbling sound," said former sportscaster Vince Bagli. "I thought someone had rolled a garbage can down the ramp until I looked out and saw the plane sitting upstairs."

Memories of this near-tragic event were revived this week with the Steelers and the now-Indianapolis Colts meeting in the AFC playoffs for the first time in 19 seasons.

One witness was Gerry Jackson, now an assistant sports editor at the Annapolis Capital-Gazette.

"I was only 16 at the time, and I was there with my younger brother Tommy," said Jackson. "My father, Jim Jackson, was a sportswriter with The Sun and was doing a side story on the game.

"We had Colt season tickets in section 36, and, after the game, we'd walk around to the football press box in left field.

"Well, we were right by section 1, behind home plate when we see this small plane headed right at us. I wasn't frightened. It all happened too fast.

"But, at the last second, the pilot got the plane's nose up and just missed us. He landed about three rows from a couple that was drunk and hadn't moved. I guess that sobered 'em up real fast."

Kroner's flight had been well-planned. A die-hard Colts fan, he had staged several runs over the park where the team practiced in the week leading up to the game.

"I believe it was the Friday before the game," said former linebacker Stan White, now a lawyer and radio sports talk host. "This guy buzzed over the stadium and dropped all these blue-and-white ties out of his plane. It had to be Kroner."

After the crash, quarterback Bert Jones, who now owns a lumber business in Ruston, La., remembers Kroner paying him a visit at his Baltimore home.

"I think he knew I also flew planes, and he wanted to get acquainted," Jones said. "He kept buzzing over our practices. I guess he was just fooling around, but he didn't realize how dangerous it could get."

Kroner, who would serve three months of a two-year sentence for malicious destruction of property and violation of city aviation ordinances, had a background befitting a protagonist in a spy novel.

Investigation of his past revealed that he had once served as a federal narcotics informant in South America, but had been dismissed after getting into a fistfight with one of the alleged drug smugglers. A former commercial pilot and flight instructor, Kroner previously had had his flying license revoked by an employer for insubordination. He fought for five years before getting it reinstated.

Kroner could not be contacted for this story. His last known address in this area was with relatives in the Edmondson Village area of west Baltimore, but one relative there said Kroner hadn't lived there for two years.

Facing sentencing for his unlawful flight, Kroner concocted a bizarre tale that he had planned to recover a deer he had shot on the Eastern Shore. But while flying back to his home in Rosedale, he said he encountered engine problems and sought to make an emergency landing in Clifton Park or Eastern High School when his glasses broke, sending him off course.

However, several acquaintances, including his mailman, testified that Kroner had boasted, "I'm going to give them [the Colts] a Christmas present. I'm going to land on the field during the game, and then take off."

After Kroner's crash, it was almost possible to forget that the Colts had suffered one of the worst beatings in playoff history.

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