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40 Years Ago: University of Evansville Basketball Team Killed In Plane Crash

29 people were killed in the crash which included 14 players and the whole coaching staff who headed for a game in Tennessee


EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- It was 40 years ago today that the city of Evansville and the entire state of Indiana was shaken to its core. 

A plane carrying the University of Evansville men's basketball team, coaching staff, other school officials and supporters of the team, crashed shortly after takeoff on this day in 1977.

It was a foggy morning at Evansville Dress Regional Airport. The Purple Aces were headed for Nashville, Tennessee, as they had a game with Middle Tennessee State in nearby Murfreesboro. 

The team boarded a chartered DC-3 Aircraft, Air Indiana Flight 216, at around 7:20 a.m. and the plane took off soon after.

One minute and 30 seconds later, according to eyewitness accounts and information provided to WIBC by Indiana State Police, the plane entered a hard left bank, the engines revved up, and the aircraft crashed near the edge of the airport property along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad tracks. The plane burst into flames upon impact. 

Archive audio from WIBC in 1977 describes the scene: "Bodies and debris were scattered everywhere."

A report from the from the National Transportation Safety Board says the pilots and ground personnel forgot to remove safety locks that keep the rudder of the plane in place while on the ground. The plane, once airborne, could not steer properly. When the pilot tried to maneuver to correct it, the plane crashed. 

The report also places blame on improper weight balance of luggage loaded onto the plane; not only was there too much luggage on board, but the bags had also been placed too far back on the plane. 


The Evansville Purple Aces had just started their 1977 campaign under first year head coach Bobby Watson. It was the team's first season as an NCAA Division 1 program. They were 1-3, having lost their first two games to Western Kentucky and DePaul.

The Aces managed to beat Pittsburgh to get their first D1 win exactly a week before the crash, then just three days before that fateful day, lost to a sophomore upstart in Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores.

Watson, along with all of his coaching staff and all 14 players, were killed in the crash. All 29 passengers on board Air Indiana Flight 216 died.


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