20 years ago, stadium was buzzing, but unhappy fans weren't reason

December 01, 1996|By JOHN STEADMAN

From out of the darkened sky of a December evening came the approach of an airplane. It was circling precariously over the rooftops of nearby houses, only 200 feet off the ground, with red and green position lights aglow and presenting the appearance of a mysterious airborne invader. Gradually, it turned in a southeasterly direction toward nearby Memorial Stadium.

Could this be some imagined flight of fancy? Were our senses giving way to hallucination? Or realistically, was the plane in trouble, unable to gain altitude, out of fuel, perhaps, and desperately in need of finding space for an emergency landing?

There was hardly room to fit a plane between the light towers and the scoreboard -- after all, it had never been negotiated before -- but the pilot somehow maneuvered away from the structures and was descending, almost gliding, toward midfield. Members of the grounds crew scattered, their instant fear suggesting they could easily be run over by a plane heading dead-on toward them.

It kept dropping and, when only about 10 feet off the ground at the 50-yard line, suddenly accelerated as if it were playing a game of "touch and go." The engine was running rapidly and the plane jumped in a sudden ascent. In the end zone, two sportswriters, Dave Ailes of the Greensburg (Pa.) Tribune-Review and a Baltimore reporter, who was showing Ailes the way to the team locker rooms, were transfixed in astonishment, almost anchored to where they were standing.

The plane came right at them, rising over their heads by no more than 20 feet, close enough to have thrown a stone and hit the underbelly of the Piper Cherokee. It was now apparent the pilot was endeavoring to circle the curvature of the second deck and fly out of the place. Undoubtedly, he asked more of the engine than it was empowered to give. The plane stalled and fell into the stands with a thud, shearing off part of a row of seats and looking reminiscent of a fallen bird spread-eagled on the wall of a canyon.

This was the incredulous aftermath of the Pittsburgh Steelers obliterating the Baltimore Colts, 40-14, in their playoff encounter in 1976. Terry Bradshaw had reached Frank Lewis with a 76-yard scoring pass on the third play of the game and the rout began. The hometown crowd was so disappointed that it began to vacate the premises as early as the third period.

In immediate retrospect, the one-sided outcome was regarded as a fortunate circumstance, or else spectators would have still been seated behind the end zone, waiting for the crowd to thin, and there's no way to approximate how many casualties or fatalities may have resulted. The picture of the crash became Page 1 in newspapers around the world.

The pilot, Donald Kroner, had been accused only days before of violating the altitude minimum while "dive bombing" the Iron Horse Restaurant, owned by the late Colt Bill Pellington, in a Lutherville shopping center and throwing rolls of toilet paper on the roof of the establishment. This was in reply to Pellington previously asking him to leave the premises in the midst of a disagreement with customers.

Charles Joseph Lusco, nicknamed "Lucky," had been seated at the stadium in Section 41, Row 21, with his wife, near where the plane went down, and, along with thousands of others, had left early. For Lusco, it was his second brush with a freak stadium accident, because he had been on the escalator that jammed in 1964 before an Orioles game, killing a schoolmate and injuring 45 other children. "Lucky" Lusco. Yes, without a doubt.

Kroner, the aerial daredevil, suffered only minor scrapes, was sent to a hospital and charged by police. He also had flown low over the stadium in midweek and dropped two neckties on the field during a Colts practice, but then on Sunday returned.

Sports editor Ailes is here today to cover the Ravens and Steelers and was talking about the incident. "I can close my eyes right now and still see that plane coming at us," he said. "It was the most incredible spectacle of my life. It could have killed both of us and also a couple of security people who were standing there. One threw himself on the ground. In the next second or so, when we turned to look up, the plane crashed in the stands. It was such a strange site, you had to blink and look twice."

Joe Gordon, communications director for the Steelers, adds: "It was the most bizarre thing of my 28 years in football. I'd put it No. 1 on the list of the top 100 unforgettables." And John Brodie, a former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, offered a bit of forced humor after reading the details. "After all the bad days I had in that stadium, I couldn't think of a more appropriate place for a plane to crash."

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