Published on September 19th, 2016 | by Pro Wrestling Stories0
Twists of Fate: Two Plane Crashes That Changed The Wrestling World Forever
October 4, 1975 – The Plane Crash of John Valentine, Ric Flair, Bob Bruggers, Tim Woods and David Crockett
John Valentine was the first to notice that the plane had run out of gas…
It was October 4, 1975. Valentine, Ric Flair, Bob Bruggers, Tim Woods and David Crockett were squeezed into a tiny twin-engine Cessna 310 plane from Charlotte bound for Wilmington, North Carolina for an evening show at the sold-out outdoor Legion Stadium.
Valentine was sitting next to the pilot. He was the US Heavyweight champion and the Jim Crockett Promotions’ top star. The following week he was scheduled to face then-NWA World Heavyweight champion Dory Funk Jr. at the Greensboro Coliseum.
He turned to the others in the rear of the aircraft and smiled.
“Guess what,” he said, “We are out of fuel…” Then he laughed. He laughed because he knew the aircraft could fly on the right engine which was still running.
At this point, the aircraft had descended to 1,000 feet above ground level on approach to land and was cleared for a visual approach. The pilot reached for the fuel tank selection lever. He turned it to the reverse fuel tank.
But it was empty, too.
The pilot was Joseph Michael Farkas, a 28-year-old Vietnam veteran. He’d had trouble getting the plane off the ground in Charlotte because of the combined bulk of the wrestlers. He didn’t distribute the weight of the passengers in the plane properly and decided to dump fuel from the gas tank to lighten the load. His miscalculation would prove a fatal error.
As Farkas turned the lever the right engine spluttered, surged…then nothing, only the wind rushing by and the propellers turning in the cold wind.
“We just dropped like a rock,” Tim Woods remembers.
Farkas started screaming. Valentine reached over and slapped him to bring him to. The aircraft dipped nose first in a rapid descent, only three miles short of the runway at New Hanover Airport.
“I was scared to death,” says David Crockett. “I wasn’t supposed to be flying that day – my brother Jimmy was. He called up and said he was feeling really bad with the flu. This was a Sunday event in Wilmington so I said I’d go because it was only a 45-minute plane ride. I remember leaning over trying to control my breathing. My wife had had our first child two weeks before, so I was trying to do Lamaze so I wouldn’t get the wind knocked out of me and pass out because I knew if I passed out I’d be deader than a doornail. I remember thinking I’ve got all these wrestlers in front of me, if we crash in this water, I’ll never get past them and get out. There’d be no way…”
Woods, who wrestled under a mask at the time as the original Mr. Wrestling, remembered a conversation he had with Austin Idol, a plane crash survivor himself from a few years earlier.
“Austin Idol did not have his shoes on in the plane,” recalled Woods from his Charlotte home. “And it tore the bottoms of his feet down to the bone and he nearly never wrestled again. When Austin Idol told me about that that was the first thing that went through my mind. I didn’t have my shoes on either … The pilot had a big briefcase with some airplane manuals in it. I grabbed that and put it under my feet because I didn’t have time to get my shoes on.
I knew that I wasn’t going to die…but I figured we’d all get hurt, it was just a matter of how badly…”
Johnny Valentine believed he would come out unscathed.
“All the time when they were going down, he said he knew he wasn’t going to be hurt,” said Valentine’s wife Sharon. “He said he felt like he was indestructible. He said they were in trouble but that [it] was going to be all right. He kept telling them that.”
Farkas used the controls to level the fast sinking plane at 4,000 feet and then it clipped and tore through tree branches.
Crockett said the pilot almost landed the plane safely. “If we had gotten past the trees we would have made the clearing right before the runway.”
Woods recalled, “When we finally hit the ground, [Farkas] stalled the plane – by doing that, he got our speed down as low as possible. We were still between 85 and 100 miles when we hit the ground…”
On impact, all the seats broke loose, “Cascading one on top of the other.”John Valentine – his arms braced against the dash of the aircraft – took the full brunt of the seats, the
John Valentine – his arms braced against the dash of the aircraft – took the full brunt of the seats, the wrestlers, and the baggage as they slammed forward into him, breaking his back in three places.
Crockett’s head smashed through the seat in front of him – busting Woods’ ribs – his mouth ripped open and his right shoulder dislocated. Ric Flair, just 26 at the time, suffered multiple lacerations and broke his back. Bruggers, a former linebacker for the Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers also broke his back.
The plane hit another tree, bounced off and nosed dived into a railroad embankment.
“We crashed about 100 yards short of the runway,” said Crocket. “We just missed a water tower from the prison camp which is there.”
Valentine was conscious the whole time. He later told Crockett, “David, be glad that you don’t remember.”
As his back was crushed a bone fracture wedged itself into his spinal column. His back would have to be re-attached with a clamp. He was paralyzed from the waist down, his wrestling career shattered.
The six men were rushed to New Hanover County Hospital in Wilmington.
The pilot, Joseph Michael Farkas, died two months later in the hospital.
Bob Bruggers had a steel rod inserted into his spine column. After a month in the hospital, he went home. It was said he could have made a comeback to the sport, but he never wrestled again.
Crockett, who felt the effects of the crash for six months after it happened, suffered trauma to his head and sustained other injuries.
“They stitched me up in my mouth, and I didn’t realize that I had dislocated my shoulder. They tried to give me crutches to walk out of the hospital but my right arm wasn’t working so they checked that and found out I had a dislocated shoulder. I was always complaining that whenever they put water or anything in my mouth I would scream… When my wife got me back to Charlotte I was still complaining about it. I didn’t want to eat or drink anything because it was hurting. She took me to our dentist, and when he looked inside he said, ‘Well, I can understand that – he’s shattered two teeth and the nerves are just sitting there exposed!'”
Ric Flair doesn’t like to talk about the crash even now.
“I was out six months,” he was quoted in ‘Ric Flair: 2 Decades of Excellence’. “I was supposed to stay out a year… [but] like every young athlete, I wanted to get back in, you know?”
“The doctors said, ‘I can tell you that the bones are put back together…but whether or not [you can wrestle again] you’ll have to find out yourself…'”
Ric Flair’s fate could have been entirely different that day.
Earlier in the flight, he and Valentine had swapped seats. Flair had gotten scared sitting up front next to the pilot. He complained repeatedly until Valentine finally said, “You get in the back, I’ll sit in the front.”
“That’s fate,” said Valentine’s wife Sharon twenty-five years after the event. “Neither John nor I feel bad about the fact that had Ric still been sitting there, he’d be in this shape…John’s never shown any animosity or anything about that.” Though Sharon herself called Flair “callous” and “cold”, claiming her husband never heard from Flair after the crash.
When the crash was reported by newspapers, Tim Woods’ real name – George Woodin – was used to hide the fact that Woods – a heel – was sharing a plane flight with his kayfabe bitter-enemy John Valentine.
In fact, when Wahoo McDaniel came to the hospital to visit, staff there tried to restrain him and called the cops as they believed he was coming there to attack Flair, his kayfabe rival at the time.
Wrestling was a different world back then. And had Ric Flair – arguably the greatest wrestler of his generation – not changed seats with Valentine that day, wrestling as we know it today would be unrecognizable.
SOURCES: Gary Hart’s autobiography: ‘My Life In Wrestling…With A Little Help From My Friends‘, canoe.ca, John F. Molinaro’s Dec. 2000 article for SLAM! Wrestling, dory-funk.com, onlineworldofwrestling.com, ‘Wrestling’s Glory Days’ Facebook page, Mike Mooneyham’s article for the Charleston Post & Courier, Wilmington WCTV News