The Real Story Behind We Are Marshall

Note: This article includes details about the real events that inspired the film "We Are Marshall." These events are central to the film's plot and its ending.

The story told in "We Are Marshall" sounds a little like the invention of a screenwriter. An airplane carrying a university football team crashes, killing nearly all of the players, most of the coaching staff and several prominent fans. The university and the close-knit surrounding community are devastated but decide to persevere. A new head coach assembles a team of freshman and athletes who have never played football. This motley crew goes on to win its first home game with a record-breaking number of fans in attendance.

But in spite of sounding like they were made for Hollywood, these events really took place. On November 14, 1970, Southern Airways Flight 932 crashed on approach to Tri-State Airport in Kenova, West Virginia. Marshall University had chartered the plane to carry its football team, the Thundering Herd, home from a game against East Carolina University. All 70 passengers and five crew members were killed. Only a handful of the Thundering Herd were not on board.

The plane, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-31, had flown from Atlanta, Georgia to Kinston, North Carolina to pick up its passengers. Flight 932 then left Kinston at 6:38 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST), and the flight, expected to take 52 minutes, progressed normally. But about a mile from the Tri-State Airport runway, the airplane struck trees on a hill, cutting a 75-foot wide, 279-foot long (22.8 x 85 meter) swath through them before crashing into the ground. The plane exploded on impact. The main wreckage landed only 4,219 feet (1,286 meters) from the runway.

The tower controller had started watching for Flight 932 after it passed the Instrument Landing System's (ILS) outer marker. At 7:36 p.m. EST, the staff noticed a red glow to the west of the runway. The controller had not made visual contact with the airplane, but he saw the explosion and fire that resulted from the crash. Unable to contact the plane, the tower crew started emergency procedures. Police and fire officials as well as the National Guard responded.

The ground-based components and instrument indications of an Instrument Landing System. The ground-based components and instrument indications of an Instrument Landing System.
The ground-based components and instrument indications of an Instrument Landing System.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the crash and quickly ruled out gross negligence or foul play:

  • The airplane was in good condition and had been properly maintained. It had refueled in Kinston before its departure.
  • Its crew had filed an accurate flight plan and adhered to it.
  • The plane was not overloaded, and its center of gravity was within normal limits.
  • The pilot and first officer were experienced and qualified to make the flight.
  • The pilot had a 20-hour rest period before reporting for duty. The first officer had an 18-hour rest period.

Investigators found no sign of any sort of catastrophic failure in the structure of the airplane, its instruments or its power system. They also found no serious missteps at the airport. The runway was wet due to weather, but the flight crew knew about its condition and had adjusted their descent to compensate. Although it was raining and cold, airport personnel reported a visibility of five miles (eight kilometers) until just after the crash. The runway lights and notification beacons were all functioning.

However, because of the nature of the terrain around the airport, it did not have a glide slope as part of its ILS. A glide slope transmits a signal to the aircraft to help the pilot make sure that the plane descends at the right angle. Because of the absence of the glide slope, the landing was considered a non-precision instrument approach. The airport was allowed to operate without a glide slope, but without it, pilots had one less tool for landing safely.

Investigators also ruled out the height of the trees as a factor. The trees were too tall according to the Federal Aviation Regulations in use at the time. However, these regulations were used for administrative purposes, like allocating money or notifying the public of construction. The height of the trees did not violate the U.S. Standard for Terminal Instrument Approach Procedure (TERPS). In other words, under normal circumstances, the height of the trees should not have affected a plane's ability to land.

The NTSB's final analysis was that the airplane had crashed because it was below the Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA). In other words, it crashed because it was too close to the ground while descending. But the NTSB was not able to determine precisely why the plane was flying too low. Investigators narrowed it down to two possibilities. According to the accident report, "the two most likely explanations are (a) improper use of cockpit instrumentation data, or (b) an altimetry system error" [NTSB Aircraft Accident Report]. In other words, either the instruments were functioning incorrectly or the pilot and first officer were using their data incorrectly.

We'll look at these two possibilities in more detail in the next section.

"We Are Marshall": Analyzing the Data of Flight 932

Basic components and operation of an aviation recording system
Basic components and operation of an aviation recording system

During the investigation, the NTSB analyzed the airplane's instruments as well as the crew's behavior. The plane was clearly flying too low, and the NTSB wanted to determine why. In addition, the flight data recorder (FDR) showed the plane twice overshooting and then correcting its rate of descent. This suggested that the pilot may have been compensating for incorrect instrument readings.

Officials conducted extensive tests on the planes' barometric altimeters. The analysis revealed that both the pilot's and the first officer's instruments may have malfunctioned. They seemed to report that the airplane was 300 feet (91.4 meters) higher than it really was. However, the impact of the crash may have caused both altimeters to report incorrect altitudes.

Another theory was that the pilot and first officer were using their radio altimeters to determine the plane's altitude. A radio altimeter works essentially the same way as radar. It measures the amount of time it takes for radio waves to travel to the ground and back. But in very hilly or uneven terrain, like the area of West Virginia where the plane crashed, radio altimeters could give inaccurate readings. The pilot and first officer would have known this from their training. The NTSB investigators reported that the use of radio altimeters on approach to the airport was possible, but not probable.

Regardless of exactly why the plane was flying too low, the pilot and first officer were probably completely unaware that it was doing so. The first officer's callouts as recorded in the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) were consistently higher than the measurements recorded in the plane's FDR. It is unclear whether the pilot verified the callouts on his own instruments or whether he relied on the first officer's readings.

In addition, according to the conversations recorded by CVR, the crew believed the plane was on a normal descent to the airport. The pilot and first officer did not note any cause for concern other than a minor issue with the autopilot. It appeared to capture a glide slope signal even though the airport had no glide slope. The pilot also remarked that the autopilot seemed sluggish. Investigators did not believe that the pilot was using the autopilot incorrectly or that the autopilot caused the crash.

The CVR also recorded a comment from the flight's charter coordinator, a Southern Airways employee who was in the cockpit just before the crash. The flight coordinator's duties required him to talk to the pilot, so he was allowed to be in the cockpit. Shortly before the crash, he remarked, "Bet'll be a missed approach." Investigators believed that he noticed that the plane was approaching MDA but had not made visual contact with the airport. This would require the airplane to level off and turn around. The FDR data suggests that the pilot tried to do just that before striking the trees.

The NTSB found a few points at which the pilot or first officer did not strictly adhere to landing procedures on approach to Tri-State Airport. For example, it appears that the pilot attempted to level off only after he reached minimum descent altitude. Doing so would allow the plane to pass through MDA and continue to descend while it leveled off. However, since the tops of the trees were more than 300 feet below MDA, leveling off earlier would not likely have prevented the crash. In fact, the only thing that would most likely have prevented the crash was a glide slope at the airport. Tri-State airport installed a glide slope using federal funds in 1972.

The crash took the lives of everyone on board -- the pilot, the first officer, two flight attendants, the charter coordinator, 24 Marshall University football fans, nine coaches and 37 players. We'll look at what happened to the Marshall University football program as a result next.

Rebuilding Marshall University Football

Memorial to the 1970 Marshall University football team at Spring Hill Cemetery, Huntington, West Virginia
Memorial to the 1970 Marshall University football team at Spring Hill Cemetery, Huntington, West Virginia
Photo used under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Even before the 1970 season, Marshall University's football program had experienced some difficulties. The team had a poor record in the 1960s, including seasons with no winning games. In 1962, its stadium was condemned for health and safety violations. In 1969, the Mid-American Conference expelled Marshall from its ranks because of recruiting violations. At the time of the crash, Marshall was part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) but was on probation due to the same allegations.

By 1970, the school had made some improvements. Fairfield Stadium had undergone a full renovation, and its playing field had fresh Astroturf. Although 1970 was not a winning season, the team's last game against East Carolina University was close. Marshall lost with a score of 14 to 17.

The crash affected both the University and the surrounding community. After the crash, government offices and local businesses were closed. The University cancelled many activities and held a memorial service at the stadium on Sunday, November 15. It also cancelled Monday's classes. Funeral and memorial services took place over the following weeks. The bodies of six football players that could not be identified were buried together at Spring Hill Cemetery, which overlooks the Marshall campus.

On March 17, 1971, Jack Lengyel became Marshall University's new football coach. Assistant Coach Red Dawson, who had made the trip back to West Virginia by car, returned to coach for one year. With the help of other surviving faculty and staff members, they began assembling a new football team.

They started with the players who had not been on board the flight because of injuries, academic conflicts and other reasons. To these players they added athletes who played other sports. The school also requested permission from the NCAA to allow freshmen to play, which the NCAA granted. Lengyel re-named the team the Young Thundering Herd until it regained its original 4-year class structure.

The Young Thundering Herd lost its first game, which was against Morehead. But it won its second game -- its first home game -- against Xavier University with a score of 15 to 13. The team won one other game in the 1971 season.

The Thundering Herd began to have winning seasons in 1984. Marshall played in the NCAA division I-AA playoff in 1987 and won the Southern Conference football championship in 1988. In 1992 and 1996, Marshall was the NCAA Division I-AA champion. The team moved into division I-A in 1997 and won its first bowl game in 1998.

The 1970 tragedy is still a part of life at Marshall and in the city of Huntington. An annual memorial ceremony takes place at the Memorial Student Center fountain, which was dedicated on November 12, 1972. After this ceremony, the school turns off the water to the fountain until spring.

In addition to the film "We Are Marshall," the documentary "Ashes to Glory" and the book "Real Tragedy, Real Triumph" tell the story of the Marshall University football team. See the links on the next page for more information about the Marshall University air disaster, "We Are Marshall" and related topics.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Bonfiglio, Jeremy D. "Marshall Gets It Right, Tells Story with Respect." South Bend Tribune, November 19, 2006. http://www.southbendtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061119/Ent04/611190500/-1/ENT
  • DeLozier, Cassie. "OSU Plane Crash Evokes Chilling Past Memories." The Daily O'Collegian. http://www.ocolly.com/new_ocollycom/new_site/read_story.php?a_id=9961
  • Drehs, Wayne. "Marshall Remains Worst Sports-related Air Disaster." ESPN, November 13, 2000. http://espn.go.com/ncf/s/2000/1113/875480.html
  • Georgatos, Dennis. "Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo remembers plane crash of 1960," October 28, 2006. http://news.pajamasmedia.com/2006/10/28/11655033_Cal_PolySan_Luis.shtml
  • Manchester United Football Club http://www.manchester2002-uk.com/sports/footballers5.html
  • Marshall University Library Virtual Museum: November 14, 1970 http://www.marshall.edu/library/speccoll/virtual_museum/memorial/default.asp
  • The 1970 Marshall Football Team Crash http://webpages.marshall.edu/~rossett1/1970/crash.html
  • The Herald-Dispatch: 1970 Marshall Plane Crash: The Real Story http://www.herald-dispatch.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=MUCRASH
  • Weir, Tom. "Marshall Tragedy Finally Comes to Film." USA Today, May 5, 2006. http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/football/2006-04-30-marshall_x.htm?ord=15
  • "Yankee Pitcher Killed in Plane Crash." RecordOnline, November 11, 2006. http://www.recordonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061011/NEWS/61011007/-1/SPORTS18