1975 was a disastrous year in regards to air travel. Two plane crashes occurred just under 8 months apart which changed the wrestling world forever. The first plane crash befell on February 20th, 1975 with passengers Bobby Shane, Buddy Colt, Dennis McCord and ‘Playboy’ Gary Hart on board. The second fateful flight occurred on October 4th, 1975 with John Valentine, Ric Flair, Bob Bruggers, Tim Woods and David Crockett aboard.
Being a professional wrestler requires you to be on the road often beyond 300 days a year. The wear and tear on the body from travel, let alone being slammed into a mat day in and day for the entertainment of others and the talent’s own in-ring aspirations takes its toll. Not only is the profession dangerous, but so too can be the travel.
Today, we will take a close look at the circumstances that led to both plane crashes, and the aftermaths that followed. As we will soon learn, the dangers of travel on the road can, unfortunately, prove to be deadly.
The Plane Crash into Tampa Bay with Bobby Shane, Buddy Colt, Austin Idol, and ‘Playboy’ Gary Hart – February 19th, 1975
Buddy Colt, ‘Iron’ Mike McCord, Gary Hart and Bobby Shane were traveling from a show in Miami to Tampa in the middle of the night in Buddy Colt’s personal single-engine Cessna 173. While airborne, a storm approached rapidly, forcing Buddy Colt, who was piloting the plane, into a cloud bank with zero visibility. Blinded, Colt’s plane took a nosedive into the Tampa Bay. Three of the passengers were able to unfasten their seatbelts, swim to the surface and eventually to safety 300 yards away. Unfortunately, one of the passengers was unable to unfasten their seat belt in time and did not make it.
Gary Hart highlighted the terrible events of their plane crash that took place that night in his autobiography ‘My Life In Wrestling…With A Little Help From My Friends‘:
“On February 19th, 1975, we had a show in the Miami Convention Center. After the matches, Bobby Shane, Buddy Colt, Dennis McCord, and I left the arena and went to Wolfie’s to get something to eat, and then we went to the airport to board Buddy’s plane – a single-engine Cessna 173 – to go home to Tampa. Buddy was flying the plane, Dennis was next to him, Bobby was behind Buddy, and I was behind Dennis.
When we had originally flown into Miami, Bobby was behind Dennis, but I asked if we could switch seats going back, because Dennis wasn’t as tall as Buddy, and I could have more leg room. Bobby didn’t mind at all, because it was going to be a “working flight.” As I mentioned in the previous chapter, Bobby was in the process of taking over the book from Bill Watts, and as Bill’s assistant, I was reviewing the TV formats and going over the building managers with him, and I was also going to help him book a few shows during the flight, as well.
As we left Miami, Buddy called Tampa control and asked how the weather was over there. They said there were severe thunderstorms moving across the bay, so Buddy decided to change course and land in Sarasota. Before he could change course, an air traffic controller from McNeal Air Force Base in Tampa came on and said that if we wanted to go to Tampa, we could make it, assuring us, “You won’t have any problems, and you’ll probably get here before the storm comes in.”
Buddy asked us all if we wanted to land in Sarasota, or if we should head on to Tampa, and we collectively made the unanimous decision to go home. That’s why we were on the airplane in the first place. There was no concern about the storm because the air traffic controller assured us we would make it to Tampa in time.
When we broke through the clouds over Tampa, however, we realized that the air traffic controller had seriously misjudged the storm’s movement, and we were smack-dab in the middle of it. The landing was going to be difficult, and on Buddy’s first attempt, we were high and to the right, so he veered out over the bay to go back in for another approach. As soon as we started over the bay, Dennis screamed, “For God sakes pull up, we’re gonna hit the water!”
As soon as I heard him say that, I reached down and unlatched my seat-belt. The next thing I remember was that I popped to the top of the bay, and it was at that moment I realized I had just survived a horrible event.
Buddy’s plane crashed into the bay cartwheeling at one-hundred-and-eighty miles per hour, and as it broke apart, I was thrown out because, fortunately, I had unbuckled my seat-belt in the nick of time. The plane crashed three-hundred yards offshore, and I was thrown an additional one-hundred-and-fifty yards away from the wreckage.
Way off in the distance, I could see a light, but I didn’t see hide nor hair of Bobby, Dennis, or Buddy. I started swimming towards the light, and even though it was raining badly and the water was choppy, everything seemed so serene. I started to realize that I couldn’t see out of my right eye, and when I reached up to touch my head, I could feel my skull. Even still, I had no pain, no fear, and no concern. I was completely at peace, and wasn’t afraid.
My only ambition was to get to that light, and there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to make it. I swam for a while, and then came upon Dennis. He had gone down with the plane, but being a power lifter, was able to curl his seat-belt to give himself enough room to slip out. I was relieved to see him, but he told me he couldn’t make it any further. I instructed him to lay back and float, and then I grabbed him with my left hand and pulled him along as I swam. At the time, my left arm and wrist were broken, but I didn’t know it yet. I just got a grip on him, and did the backstroke with my right arm until we got to shallow water. At that point, I said, “Come on, Dennis, we can walk now.”
He just looked at me and said, “Gary, I can’t walk.”
Since his feet were caught in the bottom of the plane, they were all torn up and rendered useless. Then, I heard Buddy’s voice out in the distance, screaming, “Is anybody there? Is anybody there?”
I told Dennis to stay put, and swam back out in the bay towards Buddy’s screams. I don’t know how far I went, but when I got to him, I immediately asked if he knew where Bobby was. He said no, so I hoped that Bobby saw the light himself and swam on his own. Buddy was severely injured. He had no problem getting off his seat-belt when he sank with the plane, but the rudder pedals wrapped around his ankle and lower leg, and broke his leg in a compound fracture. It was only hanging on by tendons. Just as I did with Dennis, I pulled Buddy to shallow water, and sat the two of them together. At that point, I turned my attention to finding Bobby.
I swam back out, and started hollering his name. Of all the guys, Bobby was actually a true friend. Don’t get me wrong – I liked Buddy and Dennis a lot, but I had known Bobby for years, and we lived together when we worked in Michigan. I was very concerned that he wasn’t there with us, especially knowing that Buddy and Dennis went down with the plane. After calling his name for quite awhile and searching to no avail, I made the decision to stop searching for Bobby, and to go get help for Buddy, Dennis, and myself.
The light I had been swimming towards was on top of a dock. It was low tide, and the wall from where the water ended to the top of the dock must have been twenty-five feet high. There was a ladder, but there was a good twelve feet between the water and the foot of the ladder, so Dennis and Buddy let me crawl up on their backs so I could reach it. Both of them – with one leg each – stood up so that I could climb on their shoulders and reach the ladder. I climbed the ladder to the dock where the light was at. There was a boat there, so I pushed it into the bay so Buddy and Dennis could climb in and get out of the water. There was also a house by the dock, so I started pounding and kicking on the door.
Unbeknownst to me, due to the force of the plane crash, I lost all the clothes that I had on – my shirt, my pants, my underwear, my rings, my watch, my socks, my shoes – everything. I was standing there completely naked, with caked blood all over me, and my skull exposed. When the people came to the door and saw a naked bloody man pounding on their door, they panicked and closed the door, screaming, “Get out of here! We’re calling the police!”
They were freaking out. This was 2:30 a.m., and they didn’t know that a plane crash had just happened in the bay. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to kick on the door five more times to make sure that they would indeed call the police. Then, I walked back to where Buddy and Dennis were and yelled down to them, “Help is on the way!”
At that point, I sat down under a tree. I still didn’t have any pain or any fear, and was very collected, peaceful, and calm. I heard sirens, and the first person I saw was Bob Roop’s wife, who lived nearby and heard on a police scanner that a plane had gone down in the bay. She wanted to know what she could do for me, so I said, “Call my wife and tell her that I’m injured but alive, and that I’m on my way to the hospital.”
The next person I saw was a policeman, and as soon as he saw me he said, “I guess you won’t be at the matches on Tuesday night.”
When I was being put into the ambulance, Dick Murdoch – who arrived after hearing about the plane crash – came running and jumped in the back with me. The ambulance driver started screaming that he had to get out, but Dick growled, “Nobody’s throwing me out of here! He’s my friend and I’m staying with him!”
He stayed with me and talked to me during the entire ride, even joking, “That’s the biggest bump I ever saw you take!”
Dick was so wonderful that night, and even went into the emergency room with me. I told him, “Dickie, if I should die, tell my wife to cremate me, take me back to Texas, and spread my ashes there.”
He assured me he would, and waited with me until my wife arrived. The last thing I remember was that when my wife finally got to the hospital, she started crying on Dick Murdoch’s belly.
I went out for three days. When I woke up, I was extremely relieved and thankful to be alive. I told my wife, “I had a dream that Duke Keomuka was here, and he told me that I was a hero the way I saved Buddy and Dennis. He even made a joke that I killed my heat, and that I’ll have to work real hard to get it back. Then, when I asked him about Bobby, he said he didn’t make it.
“That was yesterday,” she said. “It was Duke. He really was here. Eddie Graham and Jim Barnett were here, too.”
“I didn’t see Eddie or Jim,” I said. “I only talked with Duke.”
“No, Eddie was here,” she replied. “He was in the room with you and Duke. Jim was out in the hall with me, because he couldn’t bear to see you in the condition you were in. Fritz and Doris Von Erich called, as well.”
I was hoping Duke’s visit was just a dream, but unfortunately, it wasn’t. I really wanted to believe that since Buddy, Dennis, and I made it – Bobby survived, as well. When my wife confirmed that Bobby had died, it had a tremendous affect on me. I was sent into despair, and all I wanted to do was go back to sleep.”
News of the four wrestlers being involved in a plane crash with Bobby Shane perishing was announced at the Tampa show the following night. Jack Brisco, former NWA world champion, recalled the crowd actually cheering for their demise. This was, of course, during a time when kayfabe in wrestling was heavily protected.
Buddy Colt soon retired from wrestling, Gary Hart would continue to wrestle/manage mostly in Texas and Mike McCord became a huge star in Memphis as Austin Idol. According to Jerry Lawler, Idol was once offered a job with the World Wrestling Federation but turned down the offer as it would force him to travel by plane, something Idol supposedly never did again after the plane crash.
Little did the wrestling world know, just under eight months later, another plane crash would occur which would sadly kill the pilot, paralyze John (father of Greg) Valentine, and break Flair’s back in three places…
The Plane Crash of Ric Flair, John Valentine, Bob Bruggers, Tim Woods and David Crockett – October 4, 1975
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 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.
After the plane crash, 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 spinal 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 plane 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 plane 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 Ric Flair “callous” and “cold”, claiming her husband never heard from Flair after the plane crash.
When the plane 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 Ric 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, Mike Mooneyham’s article for the Charleston Post & Courier, Wilmington WCTV News
Some quotes used in this article compiled by Matt Pender and shared here with thanks to our friends over at ‘Wrestling’s Glory Days’ Facebook page