It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon on the 4th of October 1975 in Charlotte, North Carolina and six men were about to board a small flight east across the state to Wilmington. What happened within the next 45 minutes could have changed the course of professional wrestling forever.
Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling’s Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair and the United States Champion Johnny Valentine were two of the promotion hottest stars under Jim Crockett Promotions and they were set to star in a sell-out outdoor show at Legion Stadium, Wilmington, North Carolina on October 4th night.
Flair had met former Vietnam veteran Joseph Michael Farkas at a bar and Farkas revealed to the Mid-Atlantic champion that he had a pilot’s license and flew planes across Carolina. The drives across the Mid-Atlantic territory could be long and tiresome and after speaking to Valentine, Flair worked out if there were five or six guys in a small plane, they could divide the cost to around a hundred dollars each. This would save around four hours.
Flair was set to defend his title against Wahoo McDaniel in the Legion Stadium main event but he decided not to board the plane and hit the roads in his motor. Boarding the plane was Flair, the pilot Farkas, Valentine, “Mr. Wrestling” Tim Woods, Bob Bruggers and Jim Crockett’s son David. David Crockett’s brother Jimmy was supposed to board the plane instead of his brother but had fallen ill earlier that day.
Carrying five passengers, four which were professional wrestlers, meant the light twin-engine Cessna 310 aircraft was struggling to take off due to excess weight. According to Flair’s account from his autobiography “To Be the Man”, Farkas had ditched some fuel out of the gas tank before taking off to reduce the mass but did not inform the passengers.
The flight took off with Farkas joined at the front of the plane by Valentine, Flair and Woods sat behind with Crockett and Bruggers located at the back. Around halfway to their journey, the left engine started to sputter and Valentine, a notorious joker with the boys, started to laugh and claimed: “We’re out of fuel!”.
Farkas went to pull fuel from the reserve tank which was empty and the plane started hurtling down and the pilot started to panic. Farkas lost control and became hysterical screaming uncontrollably, to bring him back into reality Valentine started slapping the pilot in the face. Farkas regained control and levelled out the aircraft before it clipped some trees in the woods below.
The plane landed and with the impact, the body became crushed with the right-wing nearly separated. Inside the plane, the seats detached on the impact and Crockett went headfirst through the back of Woods’ chair and Mr Wrestling’s ribs were instantly smashed. Crockett stated that the plane just missed a water tower at the nearby New Hanover Correctional Center prison and landed around 100 yards short of the runway at their original destination. All six were rushed to New Hanover County Hospital.
Mike Farkas: The pilot suffered horrific head injuries and remained in a coma for nearly a year before sadly dying in hospital. He was only 28 years old.
Bob Bruggers: Former NFL star Bruggers was sitting at the right side of the back of the plane and suffered a broken ankle and spinal fractures. While receiving treatment, he had a rod inserted into his spinal column and left the hospital three weeks later. After being paid $70,000 in an insurance payment, he chose never wrestled again.
David Crockett: After colliding headfirst into Woods seat, Crockett was lucky to come out of the accident with a severe concussion and slight compression fracture. Or so he thought… when he was about to leave the hospital, he was handed crutches and attempted to walk but his right arm failed to comply. The doctors realised he had suffered a dislocated shoulder too. In addition, his mouth was torn open during the accident and after visiting a dentist weeks later, he realised he smashed two teeth.
Tim Woods: While spiralling down from the sky, Woods remember a story fellow wrestler Austin Idol told him. Idol had previously been involved in a plane crash in Tampa Bay, Florida earlier than February and had no shoes on. The impact of the crash took his skin off the soles of his feet. Woods had no shoes during the Wilmington flight but felt he didn’t have enough time to place his shoes back on. He reached under the pilot’s seat and grabbed his briefcase and to protect his feet, he placed them inside.
Full-fledged babyface Mr Wrestling, who was feuding with Valentine at the time, wanted to protect the business and there was no way that it would be revealed that he travelled with heels. On arrival to the hospital, he made sure he checked in as George Burrell Woodin, his birth name and claimed to be the promoter. Despite suffering bruised and cracked ribs in the crash, he checked out of the hospital the next day and began accepting dates for future matches. Within two weeks, to stop any rumours that he was indeed part of the plane crash, he was back in the ring wrestling under the mask as Mr Wrestling in obvious horrific pain. Flair stated that Woods became the man that “saved Mid-Atlantic Wrestling” as in 1975, kayfabe was alive and well.
Johnny Valentine: Sitting at the front of the plane the majority of the weight, unfortunately, fell towards Valentine. He suffered similar back injuries to Bruggers but later became paralysed from the waist down. A bone fracture in his back became jammed into his spinal column and the doctors had to reattach his back together with a clamp device. Sadly, at age 47 and previously selling out arenas across the Carolinas, he would never wrestle again.
Ric Flair: Flair suffered a compression fracture of three vertebrae and doctors doubted that the 26-year old Flair would never wrestle again. This made Flair more determined to climb back into the ropes and began rehabilitation. During his convalescence, Flair trimmed down from 255 to 180 pounds, a shadow of the man he was before boarding the plane.
Wahoo McDaniel visited Flair in hospital pushing past staff that would be trying to stop him, as after all on TV, he was Flair’s bitter rival and the staff were protecting Ric from receiving further injuries. He defied the odds and returned to the ring to defend his Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight title on January 31st 1976, just a few months after the accident. He faced Wahoo and defeated the Native American by count-out. Flair claims on his tremendous ESPN 30 For 30 documentary that when he was healing Flair became fixated on being like Buddy Rogers’ and his moniker of “The Nature Boy.”
You can speculate on what would Ric Flair have become without the “Nature Boy” gimmick, but what about if Flair had not survived the Wilmington accident?
What would have become of professional wrestling heading into the boom period of the 1980s and cable television?
Who would have inspired numerous superstars to climb between the ropes and ply their trade in this business?
What would become of the multiple title reigns that we are about to discover in our chronological journey?
One thing is for sure… this website would not exist.
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Source: ‘Nature Boy’ ESPN 30 For 30 Documentary, Ric Flair – To Be The Man, Newspapers.com, Mid-Atlantic Gateway
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