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Woodbury man’s book chronicles ‘Miracle Flight’

Woodbury resident Harold Gifford this year released the book “The Miracle Landing” — his first-hand account of piloting a plane loaded with professional basketball players to safety during a dangerous snowstorm in 1960. Staff photo by Mike Longaecker

Harold Gifford walks among his fellow Woodbury residents without much fanfare.

That’s not the case when he travels to Carroll, Iowa. Waitresses ask for his autograph there.

They understand how different life might have been in their town 50 years ago if the plane Gifford was flying would have crashed instead of safely skidding to a halt in a cornfield.

“I was kind of a hero to those people,” said the 89-year-old who lives with his wife Carol in a home off Lake Road.

Besides preventing tragedy for the Carroll townsfolk, the quick-thinking piloting of Gifford also spared the lives of the NBA basketball team that was aboard the flight on Jan. 8, 1960.

The harrowing tale is laid out blow-by-blow in Gifford’s first book, “The Miracle Landing: The true story of how the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers almost perished in an Iowa cornfield during a January blizzard.”

Gifford got a nudge to write the book after a 50th anniversary event commemorating the landing in Carroll. For years, an alternate version of the story had circulated that gave another pilot more credit for the safe landing than had actually occurred, Gifford explained.

So he and Jim Holznagel — a pilot who assisted Gifford aboard the flight — decided “to set the record straight,” Gifford wrote in the book.

The book might not have seen the light of day were it not for another write-up that rekindled interest in the landing: In 2009, New York Post columnist Peter Vescey interviewed NBA Hall of Famer and former Minneapolis Laker Elgin Baylor, who mentioned his experience aboard the flight. Vescey pounced on the little-known story and turned it into a long-form column describing the players’ memories from the flight.

Gifford was alerted to the column by a Carroll resident. After that, the 20-year Woodbury resident set out to reveal his own account.

The 173-page book includes a forward written by Jeanie Buss, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Lakers; the franchise moved to L.A. from Minneapolis later in the ‘60s.

Diverse career takes flight

Girfford’s ability to keep the passengers and crew safe from harm didn’t come by accident. Deep experience as a pilot, he explained, taught Gifford to be nimble, adaptable and averse to panicking.

“You fly in all kinds of weather and you learn ways of getting it done,” he said.

Attracted to flight as a child growing up in southern Minnesota, Gifford paid for his first flight lessons by working on a dairy farm. He went into the U.S. Army Air Corps after graduating high school in 1944. Gifford didn’t see action in World War II, but noted that he was on a supply drop for American POWs and did a fly-over of the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945,  where Japanese forces aboard the battleship were surrendering to the Allieds.

After the war, Gifford flew cropdusters in Montana and Idaho before trying his hand in various jobs including working as a glassblower, a neon bender and a salesman — in addition to owning his own bowling alley back home in Minnesota.

He said some people might think his varied career path would invoke the “jack of all trades and master of none” description. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, Gifford said.

“I look at it differently,” he said.

He later joined the Air Force reserves, which allowed him to continue flying. In the meantime, Gifford was flying and promoting fishing trips through Gopher Aviation until Minneapolis Lakers owner Bob Short bought the outfit. It was then that Gifford took a job piloting the team plane.

And that’s what he was doing when he experienced the scariest night of his life.

‘Hairy and scary’

“The Miracle Landing” chronicles in great detail the concerns Gifford harbored about flying out of St. Louis with storms materializing farther north. The captain, Gifford writes, was experiencing a bout with what he calls “get-home-itis,” meaning he was eager to return the 23 passengers to Minneapolis.

Not long after going aloft, the plane lost all electrical power, leaving the crew to fly by instinct and basic navigational aids; at one point, Gifford kept the DC-3 on a northern trajectory by getting above the clouds and following the North Star.

The electrical problem also meant the crew was without communications with ground.

“We were in serious trouble,” Gifford said, breathlessly recalling the events.

Worse yet, Gifford’s pre-flight analysis proved to be true: The winter storm was very real and making the flight treacherous. Eventually, fuel loss became a problem and forced the crew to scout an emergency landing site in rural Iowa.

Gifford gradually dropped the plane to 600 feet with his head hung out the window so he could eyeball the ground. While at the low altitude, the plane experienced a near collision with some treetops that provided a shot of adrenaline.

“This,” Gifford recalled, “is getting a little hairy and scary.”

After some more twists and turns, he found what appeared to be a suitable landing site in an unpicked cornfield.

“It was deathly quiet until we touched down,” Gifford said.

The silence turned into a deafening roar after his calculated gamble paid off; all passengers aboard escaped harm in that cornfield.

So many years later, Gifford still reminsces on the flight.

“At age of 36 it was as though I won a lottery giving me another 53 years and 210 days of life that I might  not have had,” he said. “Unlike those who win cash lotteries, I am still spending my winnings one day at a time.”

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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