The death of Rocky Marciano - an avoidable tragedy
Gary Lucken re-examines the death of undefeated heavyweight legend Rocky Marciano on this day in 1969, and explains why it was a tragedy that could have been avoided...
The violent and untimely death of Rocky Marciano in a plane crash on the eve of his 46th birthday was an event that stunned the world - and a tragedy that should never have happened.
The former World Heavyweight Champion was killed alongside family friend Frankie Farrell, 22, and pilot Glenn Belz, 37, when their light aircraft came down in the American Midwest on the evening of 31 August 1969.
The trio were travelling in a single-engine Cessna 172-H, registration N3149X, which had taken off from Midway Airport in Chicago at 5.58pm despite warnings of stormy weather on their flight path.
The intended destination, a trip of around two and a half to three hours, was Des Moines, Iowa, where Farrell, a former high school sports star who had known Marciano since childhood, was opening an insurance business.
The ex-champ, who famously retired from the ring in 1956 with an undefeated 49-0 record, had agreed to make an appearance there to support the venture and a surprise party also awaited him. From there Marciano intended heading to his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to celebrate his 1 September birthday with his wife Barbara, daughter Mary Anne, 16, and 17-month-old adopted son Rocco Kevin.
At 8.50pm Belz, with Marciano sitting alongside him at the front of the Cessna, contacted air traffic control at Des Moines Airport to say he was in the area but could not see the city because of the cloudy and drizzly conditions.
The father-of-four, president of a local construction company, asked for a radar position “fix” before announcing that he could now see the lights of Newton, around 30 miles east of Des Moines, and intended landing at the airport there to refuel.
He never made it.
At 9.05pm the descending Cessna hit an oak tree in the middle of a pasture around one and a half miles south-west of Newton Airport. The impact ripped off one of the wings and sent the now out of control and disintegrating plane bouncing across farmland for nearly 250ft before it came to rest in a creek bed.
One eyewitness, who remained anonymous, later described seeing the aircraft flying at not more than 100ft before pulling up into low clouds and then reappearing, descending, climbing, banking and then falling towards the ground.
The moments immediately prior to the accident were also witnessed by a local woman named Colleen Swarts, 30, who lived around half a mile from the impact zone.
She subsequently told reporters that she had heard the plane “sputtering” overhead, adding: “It sort of stopped right over our house and I was scared to death it would fall on us.
“I could see the lights on the plane. It sort of drifted away and I heard an awful thud. I knew what had happened.
“I hope I never hear anything like it again. I never dreamed anybody like Rocky Marciano was in it.”
Mrs Swarts alerted police while her husband attempted in vain to find the crash site in the darkness.
Sheriff’s deputies arrived a short time later and they also struggled to locate the plane but eventually discovered a scene of devastation with debris strewn across a wide area.
Both Belz and Farrell had been hurled clear of the Cessna and their bodies were found around 30ft from the main body of the aircraft with the engine lying on Belz’s chest. Marciano’s body was found underneath the mangled fuselage, a piece of debris having pierced his skull.
The Jasper County medical examiner later concluded that all three men had been killed instantly.
Air accident investigators moved in and soon eliminated any fuel or mechanical problems as possible causes of the crash. They also found no sign of any sudden medical issue which might have impaired the pilot.
Instead, their attention quickly focused on the possibility of human error on the part of Belz.
A little over a month later the National Transportation Safety Board released a report which pinned the blame on the pilot, concluding that he was neither experienced nor qualified enough to cope with the weather conditions he faced that night. In short, he should never have taken off.
The NTSB revealed that Belz had logged a little over 230 hours of flight time since obtaining his private pilot’s licence, 107 of which were in Cessna 172 aircraft, but only 35 hours at night. He was also not qualified to fly by instrument alone.
Prior to leaving Chicago, Belz had obtained a weather briefing by phone which warned of a storm front near Des Moines in which cloud ceilings would occasionally be below 1,000ft and visibility less than two miles. Belz was only qualified to fly in visual flight conditions, calling for basic minimums of a 1,000ft ceiling and three miles of visibility.
The report concluded that he had “attempted operation exceeding his experience ability level” and had become confused amid the low clouds and darkness, experiencing “spatial disorientation” before the plane plunged into the pasture at a 30-degree angle.
It said: “The true tragedy of this accident, in addition to the loss of a nationally known and respected sports champion, is the tragedy of hundreds of other similar accidents: it could have been prevented.
“The pilot followed the first cardinal rule of safe flight by obtaining a weather briefing, but he did not follow the second - carefully weighing the forecast conditions against his piloting skill, and the capability of his aircraft, and then making a conservative decision.
“That decision, in this and many other similar cases, should have been not to make the flight.”