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Tragedy in Wichita provokes racial tension

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

On January 16, 1965, Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker 57-1442, familiarly called “Raggy 42,” took off at 9:26 am from McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, heading north on a routine refueling exercise.  Four minutes later, it crashed at the corner of 20th and North Piatt Street, about halfway between Wichita State University and I-135, killing all seven aboard and 23 civilians in the neighborhood as well.

In “Mayday Over Wichita,” Carter presents us with two, intertwined tales, the first concerning the flight and its cause of failure, the second concerning the impact of the crash on the black neighborhood that suffered and its effect on race relations in Wichita.

Shortly after takeoff, the pilot experienced difficulty controlling the plane.  It would not steer properly and was rolling.

Carter quotes his chilling ”Mayday” call to the control tower. Seconds later, the plane flew straight down, creating a fifteen foot hole in the ground, and casting its parts over a wide area. The 31,000 gallons of JP-4 jet fuel it was carrying exploded and burst into flames 500 feet high, melting the plane’s parts, dismembering and burning to death some people, severely burning others, destroying 14 houses, and damaging 86 more. Carter describes the scene quite graphically and includes photos of the scenes.

Because the plane was so burned and fragmented, reconstructing it for the investigation was impossible. For about three years, probers worked with pieces, maintenance records and findings on recent crashes of other Boeing KC-135’s.

This investigation was difficult because the manufacturer, Boeing, would admit to no manufacturing or design fault and blamed pilot error, whereas the Air Force would admit to no pilot error and blamed manufacturing or design fault. Neither cooperated willingly.

In the end, the investigators concluded that the autopilot and the power control unit (PCU) for the rudder had malfunctioned, neither of which the pilot could control.

In the 1990s, three commercial Boeing 737s went out of control similarly to Raggy 42, and two also crashed straight down. Investigators found that their rudder PCUs had metal chips in their valves, which could have caused the uncontrollable rudder deflection which, in turn, would have caused the plane to go out of control.

In retrospect, even though the KC-135, the military equivalent of the Boeing 707, and the 737 were quite different machines, this could have been the problem in 1965.

In 1965, Wichita had an estimated population of 270,000 and was 95 percent segregated. Because of restrictive covenants and other real estate practices, the largest part of the Black population lived in the neighborhood of 20th and North Piatt Street.

Houses there sold for about $10,000—about $74,000 in today’s dollars. The residents were restricted to low level, low paying jobs and had no reason to trust the whites.

Consequently, when Air Force, government, and private agencies offered money to the survivors and relatives of the deceased to help out until a proper settlement agreement could be reached, the survivors and relatives declined, partly out of fear that by accepting it, they would be signing away any future rights. They had to get along as best they could on their own resources.

Rumors circulated that the plane had deliberately crashed in their neighborhood for racial reasons.

Legal and congressional attempts at help gave little relief.

The final report was a long time coming—three years—and the claimants who had waited for so long still could not get decent settlements, probably for racial reasons. Nobody was satisfied. Very soon the whites did not want to hear any more about it, and fairly quickly most people forgot the whole thing.

As an indicator of the effect of segregation, Carter looked at what had happened in a different case. On Oct. 2, 1970, a plane carrying the Wichita State University football team and others crashed into a mountain in California, killing 38.

Fans still remember and talk about it. Fundraising for a memorial began the next day, and a year later it was erected.

Thirty-five years after the KC-135 crash, in 2001, the Air Force erected a memorial at McConnell.

In 2007, a memorial finally was dedicated at the site of the KC-135 crash.

Given the issues and controversy surrounding the whole affair, Carter has done a fine job of researching the topics and documenting his statements with 420 citations and five pages of bibliography.

He has included a map of the affected area, but should have included a map of the Wichita-McConnell area. The photos are a good presentation of things in the text but are somewhat repetitious.

“Mayday Over Wichita: The Worst Military Aviation Disaster in Kansas History” is a short, well-organized, well-written book on a little remembered event. It is of interest to the general reader, and a must read for persons interested in Kansas History, military history, or racial relations in Wichita.

D. W. Carter is an African-American historian originally from Kentucky who lived in Wichita and now lives in Topeka.

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