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Wichita Airplane Crash 1965

Families in a working-class, mostly African American Wichita neighborhood were just starting their day. It was a cold Saturday morning--January 16, 1965. Families were eating breakfast and kids were watching cartoons. Then suddenly at 9:34 a.m., terror rained from the sky. In an instant, life on Piatt Street was changed forever.

A KC-135 Air Force refueling tanker fell from the sky, taking a nose dive into a vacant lot at 20th and Piatt. The impact sent 32,000 gallons of jet fuel and fire cascading in a southwest direction. People and homes were almost instantly incinerated. A dozen homes were destroyed and 30 people were dead.

The plane had taken off from Wichita's McConnell Air Force Base at 9:27 a.m. heading north. Its mission was to refuel, in midair, a modified B-52 bomber that was being tested. But this flight lasted just four minutes. Witnesses say the jet never got more than a few hundred feet off the ground. Taking a northwest turn over Oliver Street, the jet started to yaw or appear unstable. The crew started dumping fuel from the plane's massive refueling tanks as it flew over Wichita State University, and then banked hard to the left. The pilot made a frantic Mayday call to the control tower, and the jet took a nosedive.

The crash left a crater 15 feet deep. There was little left of the plane that was recognizable. The Air Force issued an official accident report ten months later, stating the crash was caused by "a rudder control system malfunction" that was impossible for the crew to overcome.

Fire crews had the flames out within about an hour, but the damage had been done. All seven crew members on the plane were killed instantly. Twenty-three people on the ground were dead, including several children and entire families. Meanwhile, many others were left homeless.

The Wichita community got high marks for its immediate response to the disaster. But in the days and weeks that followed, displaced residents say that help started to wane. In many cases, the temporary housing provided to them by local landlords proved to be rundown and unsafe. Meanwhile, many of clothes donated were odd sizes or worn out. Even more disappointing was the compensation many of the residents received in legal settlements with the government. One family received just $400 for the loss of a child. Another family was awarded only $700 for the death of an adult. Survivors got more money for loss of property, but altogether the settlements from 30 lawsuits averaged less than $13,000 each, minus 20 percent attorney fees. Many of the survivors wonder whether the payouts would have been higher had they been wealthier or white.

This still ranks as the worst air disaster in Kansas history.

Entry: Wichita Airplane Crash 1965

Author: Jim Grawe

Author information: A journalist for KPTS-TV, Wichita, Jim Grawe wrote this article for the 50th anniversary of the plane crash.

Date Created: January 2015

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.