The Tragic Plane Crash That Almost Destroyed The Entire Professional Wrestling Industry
It's hard to imagine a world without professional wrestling; it's a major force in entertainment, even if you aren't a fan of it yourself. But the whole gaudy, larger-than-life spectacle almost imploded on October 4, 1975. That's when a terrifying plane crash nearly killed some of wrestling's biggest stars.
When the flight that changed wrestling crashed outside of Wilmington, NC, Tim Woods, Bob Bruggers, Johnny Valentine, and Ric Flair were all on board. Promoter David Crockett was there, too. Each suffered horrific injuries, and for some, their wrestling careers were over. Grim reality threatened to overwhelm the fabricated storylines of professional wrestling – how to explain to fans that these supposedly bitter enemies were traveling together? But thanks to Woods, kayfabe – wrestling's internal continuity – remained unbroken.
How did one man essentially save the sport, despite the 1975 wrestling plane crash? He never gave up the mask that made him an eternal bad guy.
- Photo: GEMAUX91 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Six Men Boarded The Quick Flight From Charlotte to Wilmington, NC
It was supposed to be a routine, 45-minute flight from Charlotte to Wilmington, NC. Professional wrestling promoter David Crockett and four wrestlers – Tim Woods, Bob Bruggers, Johnny Valentine, and Ric Flair – joined pilot Joseph Michael Farkas on a small commuter plane on October 4, 1975. The wrestlers were scheduled to perform that night in Wilmington.
The Pilot Dumped Fuel To Compensate For The Wrestlers' Weight
Tim Woods (better known as "Mr. Wrestling"), heavyweight champion Johnny Valentine, former football star Bob Bruggers, and newbie Ric Flair crammed into the small plane. However, their combined mass weighed it down, and their weight wasn't distributed evenly.
Joseph Michael Farkas, the pilot, had a hard time getting the overstuffed plane off the ground in Charlotte. To lighten the load, he released some of the plane's fuel.
- Photo: Krystal / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0
Ric Flair And Johnny Valentine Changed Seats
Ric Flair was in the seat next to the pilot, but kept complaining. Johnny Valentine told Flair, "You get in the back, I'll sit up here in the front." This ended up being the biggest mistake of his life.
The Pilot Thought They Had Enough Gas To Land Safely
None of the passengers knew that the pilot had released fuel prior to take off. Soon, it became clear there was a serious problem.
Once he was up front, Johnny Valentine noticed their precarious situation. According to his wife, "John got to looking over at the gauge and said 'Gee, we're out of gas'. And the pilot said 'don't worry about that, my wing tanks are full... when they started sputtering and spinning the pilot panicked and started screaming. John reached over and slapped him to try and bring him to. Had the guy not panicked, they could have landed safely."
The Plane Crashed 100 Yards Short Of The Runway In Wilmington
As the plane approached Wilmington, it sank lower and lower, hitting utility poles and tree tops along the way. David Crockett later recalled that the plane touched down about 100 yards shy of the runway, having "just missed a water tower from the prison camp which is there at the end of the runway. [The pilot] stalled it and hit a tree and luckily we didn't flip and turn upside down. We hit another tree and bounced off and nosed dived into a railroad embankment. If we had gotten past the trees we would have made the clearing right before the runway."
When the plane hit the ground, it was still going 85 to 100 miles per hour.
All Of The Passengers Sustained Serious Injuries
41 yrs ago today Ric Flair survived a plane crash, paralyzing Johnny Valentine injured Bob Bruggers, Tim Woods David Crockett Nod @JZ_Flair pic.twitter.com/WEcpQf975B— Old Wrestling Pics (@OldWrestlingPic) October 4, 2016
Everyone on the flight except for Johnny Valentine lost consciousness when the plane struck the ground. No one on board was thrown from the aircraft; instead, they were all trapped and struggled to get free from the wreckage. Most of their seats popped loose and slid forward on impact, causing serious injuries as a result.
David Crockett got stitches in his mouth, had a dislocated shoulder, and later discovered he had two broken teeth. Ric Flair's back was broken in three places. Bob Bruggers and Johnny Valentine both suffered broken backs too, and were transported to Houston, TX, for surgery 10 days after the crash. Tim Woods had broken ribs, a compression fracture in his back, and a concussion.