Imagine flying an airplane in a rough Midwest snow storm with no heat, no defroster, no lights, no radio, no fuel gauge and no navigation system.
Harold “Giff” Gifford, a Woodbury resident with a stellar flying career, was co-pilot on a famous 5 hour, 40 minute flight that experienced those daunting challenges. “Though it all occurred over 52 years ago, the events are etched in my memory vividly,” says Gifford, 88.
On a Sunday evening—January 17, 1960—a 1935 DC-3 carrying the Minneapolis Lakers basketball team left St. Louis’ Lambert Field en route to Minneapolis. “Shortly after takeoff, both generators failed while we were in the clouds, and we soon realized that we were in a lot of trouble,” says Gifford. “Weather briefings led me to believe that by getting to Des Moines, we’d find good weather ahead.”
Following the North Star, the pilots kept climbing to get above the ice laden clouds. Above 15,000 feet altitude, they had to reverse course out of the cloud tops, then turn west to go around the storm. This plan also failed. “The only choice remaining involved a bold and daring plan to enter the clouds and descend below the icing level with our limited altimeter and rate of climb/descent indicator instruments,” says Gifford. “If we were lucky, we’d find better weather before fuel starvation.”
Nine Lakers players, who had lost to the St. Louis Hawks earlier that day, were aboard the harrowing flight: Elgin Baylor, Boo Ellis, Larry Foust, Dick Garmaker, Tommy Hawkins, Rod Hundley, Jim Krebs, Bob Leonard and Frank Selvy. Also aboard were Coach Jim Pollard and his 11-year-old son as well as nine men, women and children associated with team ownership and management. All were soon huddled together in the dark, cold cabin as ice began to form on the windows and floor of the plane.
“Amazingly, no one seemed to panic,” says Garmaker, a 1955 All-American for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers who was an NBA All-Star with the Lakers, and also played for the New York Knicks. “Somehow we all felt that we were going to make it.”
A Saving Light
Gifford and captain Vern Ullman (now deceased) were at the controls of the DC-3, making decisions as time was running out. Luckily, there was someone else in the cockpit: 21-year-old Jim Holznagel, who has just started a job flying for Gopher Aviation. “I was in the jump seat between the captain and the co-pilot to observe as I had not flown a DC-3 before,” he says.
Holznagel served a critical role as the pilots steered through the stormy night in total darkness, shining flashlights and pen lights on the instrument panel hour after hour as the fuel state became crucial. They decided to risk a descent to (hopefully) find a suitable landing spot. “The pilots took turns putting their heads out their side cockpit windows looking for the ground,” says Holznagel.
“Jim held the light on the altimeter and rate of descent, calling out numbers,” says Gifford. Around 1 a.m., over five hours after departure and nearing 500 feet altitude, Gifford eventually caught site of farm lights, then a blacktop road leading to a town. As they repeatedly circled the town, lights kept coming on: people knew they were in trouble. "The lights helped illuminate an unpicked cornfield nearby—a possible landing site,'' says Gifford. “However, there was a difference of opinion so we headed north in search of an airport or better weather, though we had to have been very low on fuel."
Then, while flying, Gifford lost the road, saying “I lost it” to Ullman, who said “I have it!” “Vern had the controls, not the road, and soon I saw we were losing altitude and nearly in a grove of trees,” says Holznagel, who called that out as Gifford grabbed the controls, barely missing the trees, then climbing into the clouds, turning and locating the road, which led back to the town.
That town was Carroll, Iowa, surrounded by farmland. “We decided that cornfield would be the best place to land as the corn was unpicked, which gave us some depth perception,” says Holznagel.
With only about 15 minutes of fuel left, the plane landed safely in that snow-covered cornfield. “All at once I heard the sound of the corn stalks hitting the bottom of the airplane,” says Holznagel. “We came to a stop in a very short time as the deep snow slowed the plane down.”
“I remember that it was a really smooth landing, and we opened the doors to very deep snow and a road lined with cars, ambulances and hearses,” says Garmaker. “As I reflect on that landing, I think about how lucky we were to have the competent pilots that we had, especially Harold. I was sitting up close to the cockpit and had a firsthand view of what was going on.”
A Full Life
Later that same year, the Lakers moved to Los Angeles to become the NBA’s first West Coast team. Gifford continued flying, then moved on to stock and real estate sales in Florida where he also operated Giff’s Sub Shop in Fort Walton Beach before returning to Minnesota, where he resumed flying charter and corporate airplanes. He retired from flying in 1993, the same year he and his wife, Carol, moved to Woodbury.
“My life has been one big adventure,” says Gifford. “When I think about that day in 1960, I believe that fate had something to do with it. Had we not made it, there may not have been an LA Lakers franchise. More importantly, there wouldn’t be 23 families with kids and grandkids living today.
“I’ve also thought about what it would have been like to hit those trees. It would have been like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat.”
Gifford is writing a book about the Carroll landing experience, “Flying by The Seat of My Pants.” “I’ve retold the story so many times, and I will include other experiences from my Air Force and charter flying days,” he says. “I’m proud that, through my training, I was given an opportunity to help save lives that night, and I kept my cool and got ‘er done.”
Today Gifford truly enjoys a full life (he lists 23 hobbies, including a favorite: cooking). But most of all, he enjoys his coffee each day with Carol, his wife of 40 years. “We reflect on how lucky we are; we’re very joyful,” says Gifford. “As I like to say, life is so darn good. I couldn’t live without it.”