When Knute Rockne’s plane crashed, the football legend died with 7 others (1931)

Death of Knute Rockne - Newspaper from April 1 1931 - Plane crash (3)

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Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne’s death in the plane crash of TWA Flight 599 on March 31, 1931, resulted in more than just the loss of the football legend and seven others — it was a pivotal moment in early airline and aviation safety.

The flight, which originated in Kansas City, Missouri, and was destined for Los Angeles was operated on this route by a Fokker F.10 Trimotor, a three-engined monoplane made out of laminated wood like most airliners of the era.

Despite initial reports that strong winds or icing may have caused the crash, the root cause was far more insidious. Unknown to the airline, moisture had seeped into the structure of one of the airplane’s wings, and had begun to weaken the glue that held the wing spars together.

Eventually, over Chase County Kansas, one spar failed entirely — causing the wing to flutter uncontrollably and then break off of the airplane completely, forcing the plane to crash with the loss of all eight souls aboard: two crew, six passengers.

Knute Rockne was just 43 years old when he died.

Knut Rockne on a ship

Following the death of such a high-profile American, the accident was investigated with a thoroughness that would become the hallmark of all airplane crashes and other aviation accidents in the US to follow.

Previously, the Department of Commerce (who investigated plane crashes before the creation of the Civil Aeronautics Board, and later the NTSB) did not release investigation results to the public, however, that changed in the wake of the public outcry over the Rockne crash.

Additionally, the crash sounded the death knell for wooden-framed airliners in the US, and manufacturers moved towards all-metal craft, which then led to huge advancements in aircraft design and safety.

While the aftermath of the crash almost sank the young TWA, the airline would go on to recover and enjoy a storied history that ran through its merger with American Airlines in 2001.

Fokker would likewise survive the tumultuous post-crash period, continuing to build successful civilian and military planes until it declared bankruptcy in 1996, though it would never again achieve the success it saw in the 1920s and 1930s. – AJW

Knute Rockne killed - plane crash 1931 - New York Daily News

Knute Rockne death: Seek cause of plane accident fatal to eight

From the Evening Independent (Massillon, Ohio) April 1, 1931

Coroner’s jury begins inquiry at Cottonwood Falls, Kan.


US mourns Knut Rockne: Body of famous coach to be taken to South Bend today

Bulletin – Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, April 1 — A coroner’s jury was told today that the Transcontinental and Western Air Transport plane apparently was in distress for some minutes with its motors backfiring before it hurtled from the clouds yesterday to carry Knute Rockne, and seven others, to death in a pasture near Bazaar, Kan.

Cottonwood Falls, Kans., April 1 — Before an audience composed chiefly of grave-faced cattlemen and ranch hands, a coroner’s jury today attempted to fathom the mystery of the accident which yesterday led to the death of Knute Rockne and seven others in the crash of an airplane near Bazaar.

Detail map of crash area

Three witnesses were called by Dr Jacob Hinden, Chase County coroner. They were RZ Blackburn, rancher, Edward Baker, son of Steward H Baker, upon whose range the plane fell, and Clarence H McCracken, ranch man who saw the liner hurtle to earth from a cloudy sky.

Dr Hinden said other witnesses would be called, among them probably officials of Transcontinental and Western Air Express, Inc [TWA], owners of the ill-fated plane and department of commerce aviation inspector.


CAPTION: Broken fuselage of wrecked Rockne plane — Central Press photo of ill-fated passenger-air mail plane in which Knute Rockne, famed Notre Dame football coach, and others fell to their death, shows fuselage of the aircraft which crashed down on a meadow near Bazaar, Kan. Photo rushed by plane and telephoto to this city.

Rocken plane wreckage viewed

The inspector, who has viewed the wreckage, is Leonard Jurdon of Kansas City. HG Edgerton, Wichita, district agent of the airplane company, probably will be called.

Dr Hinden said to tell of the last radio message from the craft, received at 10:45am asking about weather conditions.

Harris Hanshue, president of Transcontinental and Western Air Express [TWA], and Anthony Fokker, designer of the craft which carried its crew and passengers to swift death, were expected to arrive here today.

Fokker F10 Trimotor

They were reported en route to Wichita, Kan., by airplane from Los Angeles. They planned to drive the 90 miles from Wichita to Cottonwood Falls.

Ranchers in the vicinity of the crash said little of the plane remained for Hanshue and Fokker to examine, the largest part of the debris having been carried away by souvenir seekers.

Eighteen pouches of mail were found intact in the twisted wreckage and forwarded by train to Wichita.

Death of Knute Rockne - Newspaper from April 1 1931 - Plane crash (2)

Weather bad

Flying through muggy weather on a trip that would have placed them in California last night, the two pilots and their passengers met instant death.

There was no fire, indicating that the Transcontinental and Western air pilot, Robert Fry, had cut off the engines in the last moments of despair.

The plane, which had left Kansas City little more than an hour before, was shattered against the ground, its motors partly buried.

Jess Mathias of Los Angeles, the co-pilot, signaled by radio a few minutes before the crash that he did not have “time to talk.”

Three bodies were found in the wreckage. The other five were thrown free. HJ Christen and JH Happer of Chicago; WB Miller, Hartford, Conn; Spencer Goldthwaite, New York, and CA Robrecht, Wheeling, W. Va, were the others killed.

Knute Rockne football trading card

The Grand Canyon air disaster: United & TWA planes crash (1956)

Wing of Knute Rockne’s plane found

A half mile from the wreckage was found a wing of the plane. HG Edgerton of Wichita, a representative of the airline, informed Dr Jacob Hinden, county coroner, there was a possibility ice had weighed down the wing, causing its severance from the plane.

Residents of the vicinity, however, said ground temperatures were above freezing, and cowboys who scanned the clouds said the plane was not flying high.

Arrangements were made to take Rockne’s body to South Bend, Indiana, today. Funeral services will be held Saturday or Sunday.

Knute Rockne crash site 1931

Airplane emergency info booklet (1956)

Knute Rockne’s plane: Crash photos (1931)

A comprehensive story in pictures of the country’s most recent tragedy of air transport — an accident which took the lives of Knute Rockne and seven others

No. 1. The section of the wing which left the plane as it was flying in the vicinity of Bazaar, Kans. It was this structural failure which sent the big monoplane and its passengers down to their doom from an altitude which has not been definitely determined.

The two arrows in the picture indicate the locations within the wing of its two major supports. The arrow at the left points to the main spar; the other to the rear spar. As large as they are, these members must have given way to permit the wing breaking off.

No. 2. This picture is a general view of the wreck, and clearly indicates to what extent the wreckage was spread over the ground.

Knute Rockne's TWA airplane crashes (1931)

No.3. The force with which the plane struck the earth is evidenced here. So terrific was the impact that the tail of the plane was so twisted and broken as to have come to rest at right angles to the remainder of the fuselage, shown in the center of the picture.

Much of the structure of the entire fuselage is of steel tubing, yet it was bent, twisted and broken beyond reclamation.


No. 4. The remains of the ship’s nose engine disclose little that may be salvaged. About the best that could be hoped for in the matter of salvage would be that possibly two or three cylinders might be fit for further use.

The picture would indicate the big plane struck on its nose, the fuselage breaking in at least two sections at the impact. The engine shown in the picture is one of three 410-horsepower motors which went to make up the plane’s power plant.




Other passengers killed in Knute Rockne’s plane crash

In addition to Rockne, seven other people were killed: H.J. Christiansen (Chicago, Illinois), J.H. Hooper (Chicago), W.B. Miller (Hartford, Connecticut), [Spencer] F. Goldthwaite (New York), C.A. Lobrech (Chicago), Pilot Robert Fry, and Co-Pilot Jess Mathias.

Passengers killed with Knute Rockne in 1931 plane crash

The friend of all: Knute Rockne’s death casts grief over all parts of the nation

Kansas City Star (Missouri) April 1, 1931

South Bend in sorrow – Business is suspended as Notre Dame faculty and students bow in prayer

His a large following – Seldom has a similar tragedy had such widespread reaction

South Bend, Ind., April 1 [1931] — From throughout the entire nation today came to this seat of Notre Dame University such widely expressed sorrow at the death of Knute Rockne and such tributes to his memory as to give rise to this speculation: Was his the largest personal following of any man in the United States?

Expression received at the university, at the Rockne home and at the Chicago residence of the famous coach’s mother reflected far more than the reactions of personalities of the sporting realm to the airplane tragedy yesterday.

Expressions are widespread

Seldom, if ever, has the death of a man who was not engaged in public service or in any official capacity provoked such widespread expressions of grief as that of the Notre Dame coach.

From those whose sphere of interest is far removed from the gridiron, and from those who perhaps rarely, if ever, have joined huge throngs in the university and college stadia of the country, came these messages of condolence.

Comment upon Rockne, the man, gave ample evidence how extensively his personality had transcended his own immediate concern with Notre Dame’s football history.

Men whom he had coached were eager to tell how the Rockne influence had shaped their lives and their careers long after school days were ended and a sterner quest than that for sports glory had been begun. Recurring again and again was the expression of persons who declared the famous coach their “best friend.”

Knute Rockne

The city in sorrow over Knute Rockne’s death

Meanwhile here in South Bend, where Rockne’s fame had its inception in 1911, when he appeared as a football candidate, this community threw aside virtually all its daily concern to mourn its hero. Business was suspended.

The great bell of Sacred Heart church here tolled a solemn, musical note of mourning this morning as student body and faculty knelt before the altar upon which Father Charles L O’Donnell, president of the university, celebrated a solemn mass for the repose of the soul of the man who will become a legendary hero here. Virtually all the Catholic students received communion.

Flags throughout South Bend flew at half-mast today. Wherever groups gathered there was just one subject of conversation, and there were tears in the eyes of those who related anecdotes of “Rock” and expressed their observations of him.

Don Miller, backfield coach at Ohio State University, and one of the famous “Four Horsemen” of 1924, sounded the keynote of the estimate of Rockne voiced by scores after word of his death in an airplane accident was received.

“He was a lovable character whose beautiful personality made him legions of friends,” Miller said.

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Knute Rockne trading card - 1955

The idol of millions

He was the idol of millions who had never seen him. Perhaps Elmer Layden, one of Rockne’s famous “Four Horsemen,” best expressed the way Notre Dame trained players felt:

“I can’t explain the bond between the great man and his players,” said Layden, “as family troubles, football troubles, classroom troubles, all were taken to ‘Rock’ and somehow all became a little lighter after he sized up the situation and gave us his help. Why, if we fell in love with a girl we’d go and talk the whole thing over with him.”

And then there was Tom Lieb, who handled the team when Rockne was disabled by illness in 1929: “He was more than a teacher of football,” said Lieb. “He was a genius, but more than that he was a father to all of us at Notre Dame.”

Glenn S (Pop) Warner, Stanford’s veteran coach, called Knute the “greatest figure in football today — one man with no enemies,” and Gil Doble of Cornell termed him “undoubtedly the most conspicuous figure American football has known.”

Death of Knute Rockne - Newspaper from April 1 1931 - Plane crash (1)

Mourn at West Point after Knute Rockne’s death

“We at West Point,” said Maj Philip B Fleming, graduate manager of athletics, “mourn the loss of a man whose sterling qualities endeared him to all persons who had the privilege of knowing him.”

William J Bingham of Harvard called him “one of the greatest football coaches the game has ever produced; I will always think of him as one of the finest, best and truest friends a man ever possessed.”

Sam Willaman, head football coach at Ohio State University: “His death removes one of the finest characters in college football circles and it will be years, and perhaps never, that a man of Rockne’s ability and caliber will be found.”

Joe Meyer, head football coach at Xavier University, Cincinnati: “Rockne was a lovable character. During my college days at Notre Dame and while serving as a freshman coach I numbered Rockne among the men I knew best.”

Knute Rockne’s death is a loss to sports world

LW St John, athletic director, Ohio State University: “The death of Knute Rockne is an irreparable loss not only to Notre Dame, but to the world of intercollegiate sports.”

Dr JW Wilce, former football coach at Ohio State University: “There never will be another one quite like Rockne. His contributions to the game were tremendous.”

Gordon Locke, director of athletics of Western Reserve University: “Coach Rockne was, without doubt, the most brilliant and successful football coach in the country.”

“Unquestionably the greatest of football teachers,” said Mal Stevens of Yale. “His delightful sense of humor, his quick sympathy for a fallen adversary, his indomitable spirit are more than a legend and will carry on as an inspiration to all who love the game of football.”

And so the tributes poured in from the West, the South, the East, the middle West — mourning the passing of a sportsman and a gentleman, whose football genius lives in the teachings of ex-pupils from Yale in the East to St Mary’s in the West.

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Timeline: High Spots Of Rockne’s Career

From The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware) April 1, 1931

1888: Born in Vorus, Norway.

1893: Came with parents to Chicago

1907-1911: Attended Northwest Division High School, Chicago.

1911: Borrowed $45 from friends and enrolled at Notre Dame just so he could be with his first two “pals.”

1911-1913: Starred as end on Notre Dame’s football teams. Also starred in track end pole vaulting.

1918: Selected head football coach at Notre Dame, succeeding Jess Harper. First year football record: Won 3, lost 1, tied 2, scoring 133 points to opponents’ 39.

1919-1920: First gained attraction in football world by leading Notre Dame’s team through two years without defeat, scoring 626 points in 18 games to opponents’ 68.

Death of Knute Rockne - Newspaper from March 31 1931 - Plane crash.jpg

1924: Gave to the football world what was regarded as the greatest football machine of gridiron history — a team led by the famous “Four Horsemen.” Team captured 10 straight games.

1928: Rockne and Notre Dame experienced their poorest football season since Rockne became coach, winning five and losing four games.

1929: Forced to bed for several months by leg infection, but gained greater fame as team ripped through to victory over 10 opponents.

1930: Came back with “Notre Dame’s greatest team,” a team which capped its great undefeated march by astounding the football world by crushing Southern California.

1931: Became superintendent in charge of sales for the Studebaker Corporation and set out on trips, which finally resulted in his death yesterday in an airplane crash.

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Comments on this story

3 Responses

  1. Would be quite interesting to know more background on other 7 victims as well as those who were at on-site crash photo shown.

  2. God bless Coach Knute Kenneth Rockne, he truly touched so many lives. I named my first born Kenneth Rockne after this great soul.

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