PERRYVILLE, Ark. – Shortly after 4 p.m. on Nov. 17, Robin Jones sat perched atop her deer hunting stand, a 15-foot wooden ladder affixed to a chair, and lowered her 270 Remington Rifle to the Ouachita Forest floor by rope. She readied to repair to her camper at the end of a dirt road nearby, planning to prepare dinner. Suddenly, she heard a Piper Cherokee 180 plane flying low, just above a row of pine trees, through the brilliant sky. The single-engine, four-passenger plane, she realized, was speeding directly toward her.
“I kept saying, ‘Pull up, c’mon, pull up,'” she says. “They were fixing to hit me.”
On board the aircraft, built in 1964, were Olin Branstetter, the 82-year-old pilot, and his wife, Paula, 79, also an accomplished aviator. Oklahoma State women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke and his longtime assistant Miranda Serna, came as guests of the Branstetters, both fervent, well-traveled boosters of the Cowgirls program. They were bound for North Little Rock Airport, approximately 50 miles southwest of the national forest. The coaches had plans to scout high school prospects at a nearby gymnasium.
The plane, sputtering in mid-air and sinking fast, veered to the right less than 300 yards in front of Jones. She lost view of it, but heard a crashing sound of metal into mud, followed by an eerie silence. She estimated that it had nosedived one hill over, and radioed her husband, Benny, a butcher, who was also hunting in the surrounding area. They raced down Forest Road 718, a winding, wooded dirt path, in their white F-150 pickup until they found cell-phone reception. Robin Jones called the sheriff’s office.
Volunteer firemen responded first. Then came a pair of state troopers, five sheriff’s deputies, three local policemen and two officers in the game and fish commission, canvassing the area. A state police helicopter located the plane near a mountain peak. Jones’s brother-in-law, Clint Rush, returning from his automobile shop, listened to the state police describe the landscape. He recognized it as familiar hunting grounds, and put on earth-tone camouflage covered by an orange vest. He then led a seven-person search party, reaching the point of impact at 6:10 p.m., beneath a dying sun.
“They was all cut to pieces, ripped from limb to limb,” Rush says.
“Heads were detached; legs were here, arms there. Devastating, just beyond what you could imagine.”
Grisly details unsettled coaches across the country, reinforcing the gravity of the underreported risks many assume on the recruiting trail in the name of maximizing their time, and raised red flags regarding air travel concerns. The risk — taking booster-fueled jets to compress road trips into more manageable flight times – is commonplace. But by eschewing commercial airlines, be it for cost or competitive advantage, they also subject themselves to the whims of weather and pilot performance. Private flights remain one of the few aspects of a coach’s recruiting life left unregulated by the N.C.A.A.
Few answers have surfaced thus far. The National Transportation Safety Board’s probe is ongoing after issuing a preliminary report that ruled out weather-related issues. There was no flight plan filed by Olin Branstetter, and he did not re-fuel after starting in Ponca City before touching down in Stillwater. The damaged parts are being examined inside a hangar at the Clinton (Ark.) Municipal Airport.
Possible causes, ranging form medical collapses to mechanical issues with the engine, will be explored.
“We’re not doing analysis at this point,” N.T.S.B. spokesman Peter Knudson said, “and there’s still a lot of work yet to do.”
Remnants of a coaching life rested in the wreckage. An iPad and a playbook with black edges and imprinted with a glossy Cowgirls logo blew open across fallen leaves and broken branches; shredded pieces of fabric were blood stained. Shards of glass, twisted metal and skull fragments led rescuers to the grave-like crater, three feet deep and
10 feet wide. A single oak tree was leveled. Flecks of cold human flesh mixed with mud.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” says Perry County sheriff Scott Montgomery, who called in deputies from the prison to assist. “It was like a bomb had gone off.”
The tragedy ripped open wounds from pastoral Arkansas back to Stillwater, the town forever cognizant of a crash involving members of the men’s basketball program a decade earlier. On Jan. 27, 2001, a Beechcraft King Air 200, donated by a booster, crashed near Strasburg, Colo. on a snowy day. The N.T.S.B.’s report cited a loss of power and pilot disorientation, and led to rigorous checks on borrowed planes used by OSU. The restrictions did not take into account planes carrying coaches while recruiting.
“This is our worst nightmare,” OSU President Burns Hargis said. “It is worse beyond words.”
Calls for reform have been placed at his desk.
“No one wants to go to a third basketball-related funeral,” says Todd Hubbard, a retired Lt. Col. in the United States Air Force and associate professor at Oklahoma State. “There has to be a sense of responsibility at the university. If you’re the president, and it happens a third time, what do you say to people who requested change after the second?”
Robin Jones, meanwhile, never spoke to investigators, but returned to the woods that Sunday to close up her camper. She wonders why the plane swerved just before it crashed, uncertain why her life was spared when others were taken. In the remains she found a pocketknife.
She brought it to the sheriff. He promised to relay it to the families.
“I wouldn’t have gone back if it wasn’t for having seen it coming at me,” she says. “I just had to know what happened to those people.”
* * *
A yellowing, glass-encased journal entry hangs from the wall outside the men’s bathroom of the regional airport in Ponca City, Okla., a one-time Native American territory seized by pioneers and petroleum workers. Its headline reminds onlookers of the crowning height reached by Olin Branstetter: “Journey to the Top of the World!”
His brainchild in 1984 was to be at the controls of his Piper Cherokee 180, stamped with a Phillips 66 insignia on the left side, when the aircraft ventured over the magnetic North Pole that June. For three months, he mapped routes, measured angles and weighed the traveling contents. His wife and youngest son, Jack, would join him.
So would a box of beef sticks, a signal mirror, a book on survival and a sawed-off shotgun.
Doubters dismissed it as a “suicide trip,” but Branstetter, a Korean War veteran, carried confidence in bulk. Five days and 3,275 miles after initial liftoff, Paula Branstetter, known to friends as “Dusty,”
steered above the North Pole, the first woman to do so. They each took a turn at the yoke, and dropped off Oklahoma and U.S. flags, the Gideon New Testament and an aluminum plaque deeply engraved with their names, location and the year, ending with: “In God We Trust.” Olin Branstsetter beamed.
“Even our Cherokee seems smug and proud,” he wrote. He was 55.
No restrictions ever grounded the adventurous spirits. The Federal Aviation Authority stipulates that commercial pilots step out of the cockpit at 65, but no such age limit is in place for private planes even though they have been long considered riskier aircrafts to control. Branstetter maintained his license and lifted off 10 times per month, according to friends, a sufficient amount to keep up proficiency, experts say. He wore eyeglasses, as he always had, and hearing aids, but he passed all required medical tests.
“He could tell stories for days,” says Bruce Eberle, a fellow Ponca City booster.
The Branstetters, college sweethearts who met as Oklahoma State students, typically flew shoulder-to-shoulder in the front seats, but a worker at the Stillwater Regional Airport, a former student of Hubbard’s, told Hubbard that Budke, a tight fit at 6-foot-4, rode shotgun to Olin as the plane departed on Nov. 17. Paula Branstetter was supposedly in the back seat. The N.T.S.B. did not include any notes about where each passenger was seated in its preliminary report.
A final report is expected in the next year.
No matter the arrangements inside, the couple prayed hard. An unflinching faith accompanied them from takeoff to touchdown. Each time a passenger joined them on a flight, the couple, who ministered to prisoners at the jail in town, had them put their hands on the Gideon New Testament featured on the dashboard. Together they prayed:
Thank you, Lord, for providing the means to fly
And for keeping Your hands under our plane
They steadied each other through time, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary recently. For the occasion, Olin serenaded his bride with a 14-verse ballad, weaving in memories of their dogs (Princess Barney and Candy Papoose) and favorite flights:
Airplanes have been a part of us, together we’ve flown high
Across the sea, land and ice, and through the rainbow in the sky
The Branstetters were not restricted to the air. Olin loved the outdoors, trailed often by the family’s Shetland Sheepdog, both in the black F-250 truck and plane. Few weather conditions could keep the family from attending women’s basketball games; their pair of seats were not reserved, but respectfully left open by others. The Cowgirls’ gym was a straight shot on U.S. 177 from Ponca City, 57 miles door to door, and they had prime seats to witness the seven-year stretch of Budke’s rebuilding from 0-16 in conference play to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
Neighbors knew where the Branststetters stood regarding Bedlam, the intrastate war with rival Oklahoma. At the front door of their three-story stone house in Ponca City, a rock, engraved with a Cowboy warned off Sooners: THIS IS COWBOY COUNTRY.
They stayed loyal to the alma mater. Olin graduated from Oklahoma State with a degree in agriculture, but cultivated careers in oil, insurance and politics, serving a term as state senator from 1986-1990. Philanthropy filled his time, too. In 2001, he returned his wealth, establishing an aviation scholarship with the school in his wife’s name. For years, they co-piloted Angel Flights, providing free trips for medical supplies and treatments to patients in need of care for illnesses including cancer.
Nothing topped the North Pole for them, though. Slide shows of the weeklong trip kept the memories frozen in time. The family smiled with Eskimos, recounted the night they ate Caribou stew in a restaurant with no windows, unable to conserve needed heat. Family members showed it again at the memorial, set to the anniversary song by Olin.
Friends recalled Dusty’s ready response to questions regarding fear of death in flight. She would smile gently.
“No,” she said. “We have appointments in heaven whenever we go.”
* * *
The midnight calls stirred Cassandra Serna from her sleep in Guadalupita, N.M. Invariably, she heard her sister Miranda’s voice on the other end, checking in via cell phone from whatever Midwest city or dusty Texas town she had visited to observe a prospective Cowgirl that day.
“I don’t know how you do it, sister, I just don’t know,” said Cassandra, a history teacher. “I would not be able to do your job.”
Serna preferred long drives past the plains to short flights. From Stillwater, the closest commercial airports were 75 miles south in Oklahoma City and 77 miles east in Tulsa. The herky-jerky arrangements of driving an hour, flying, then driving two more hours to gyms never fit her approach as recruiting coordinator. She took to the road often, stretching the recruiting budget that measured out to be less than half that of the men’s.
“I knew her agenda on a daily basis,” says her mother, Nettie Herrera. “On some late evenings, we would talk for long whiles because she wanted to know how all of our family and friends were doing.”
Serna gave her life to the game. She was single, never married, never a mother, but lavished gifts on nephews and nieces. On Mother’s Day, not only did her mom receive flowers, so did each aunt. Before every season she wrote long letters to family and friends, sending along new team media guides. When she returned home to New Mexico for vacation, she whipped the women of the neighborhood into shape with running groups and aerobics sessions. Serna set herself as an example, dropping weight to become a size four. She recently bought new clothes in the days before flying.
“She never told me she was a chunky monkey until I saw how big her shorts had been as a player,” says Suzanne Long, the general manager at the Perkins Bakery that Serna frequented. “It was always an egg-white omelette with vegetables in front of me.”
Serna fully believed in what she sold to recruits. She first met Budke, a Salina, Kan. native, as a 19-year-old post player at Trinity Valley Junior College in Athens, Texas. Budke filled the father fissure left by her dad’s departure from the family when she was all of four, possessing a practical joker’s penchant to elicit riotous laughter.
“I was on one of those sit-down lawn mowers once and he honked his horn at me,” Forbes says. “I about fell off. He would just think about that and start laughing all the time. I can’t say I found it as humorous, but that was Kurt. He’s gone, but I know he lived life, man. He’s smiling somewhere.”
Budke fell into women’s coaching by chance. He was the assistant men’s coach at Kansas City (Kans.) Community College when the women’s coach quit. Several players walked away, too, but he accepted the job, posting an advertisement asking students to sign up. One woman had one condition: she needed a babysitter for her three children.
“Not an auspicious start,” says Jerry Mullen, the coach who recruited him to Barton County Junior College as a player.
Few blemishes marked Budke’s resume from that season forward. At Trinity Valley, he led the Lady Cardinals Lady Cardinals to four national championships and two national runner-up finishes in seven seasons. The six consecutive championship game appearances remains a National Junior College Athletic Association record. He was the youngest inductee to the National Junior College Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
“I still remember him as the player who wanted to make sure his hair was just right,” Mullen says. “He had such a high IQ. He just saw things right.”
His record sent out ripples across Stillwater, too. With Serna, he established a program and attracted high-profile recruits, from Jazmyn Dorsett, daughter of Dallas Cowboys legend Tony Dorsett to point guard Tiffany Bias, a distant cousin of fallen Boston Celtic Len Bias. Fans, including the Branstetters, found satisfaction in his development of the program, offering the support Budke desired for the women.
“Kurt wouldn’t want any of us to fall apart,” says Jim Littell, the interim coach.
Serna served as the embodiment of Budke’s mission, absorbing his lessons and relating them to players and recruits thereon. When Cassandra asked Miranda for one word to describe herself on a t-shirt, Miranda insisted she use a Budke favorite: Loyal.
“She followed him to the gates of heaven,” Long says. “They died as a team.”
* * *
A black billboard, emblazoned with an orange OSU logo, welcomes pilots and passengers to Stillwater Regional Airport, “Home of the Cowboys and Cowgirls.” It stands over parking spaces assigned to Air Traffic Controllers, three miles from campus.
“Teams, players, coaches boosters come and go, just like that,” says Gary Johnson, the airport’s general manager. “We see them all.”
Private plane travel among recruiters is most prevalent in the Midwest and south, especially in the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference, where remote campuses and deep booster coffers facilitate frequent usage of small airports near campus. School planes and donor aircraft, often bearing team logos, are viewed as necessary to be competitive. They also engender an uncertainty in coaches who board them often.
“I’ve been on private plane flights where you want to start working on your last will and testament,” says Notre Dame women’s coach Muffet McGraw, who flew privately last week. “It’s frightening. They make you think about our crazy lifestyle.”
UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma, limited to flying commercially by the Connecticut state government’s rules, abides by a simple edict when scheduling travel.
“I have a friend who gave me some great advice,” Auriemma says.
“Don’t ever get in a jet with one engine or one pilot. I will always remember that.”
There’s an element of prestige that comes with flying private, though. McGraw remembers coaches parading pilots into gyms as status symbols for elite programs, and attended a meeting in the last year where coaches considered putting an end to private plane usage in general. Competitive advantage, not safety, was what spurred thoughts.
“Flying private is necessary in season,” says Louisville coach Rick Pitino, “but I will never get in a single prop plane. I fear them.”
His former assistant, Steve Masiello, now the head coach at Manhattan, says some coaches fool themselves.
“You don’t realize what you’re doing, the hoops you’re jumping through,” Masiello says. “You think you’re living the lifestyle of the rich and famous, that you’re being spoiled, but you don’t realize the big risk you’re taking.”
In the days after Budke perished, his widow, Shelley, a mother of three in their late teens and early 20s, asked Steve Forbes, a long-time friend and a junior college coach, for a pledge to be cautious.
“Promise me that you’ll never fly in a private plane again,” she said.
Her anguish washed over Forbes, who previously coached in the SEC and Big 12.
“It rattled me to the core,” Forbes says.
* * *
On Nov. 27, Henry Branstetter, the senator’s youngest son, and a friend arrived in Perryville searching for closure. They stopped by the sheriff’s department next to the jail for directions and continued past town, snaking through paved avenues, then rumbling over gravel pathways and finally maneuvering onto the mud roads. They happened upon a white-haired man in an orange hunting vest and camouflage hat.Sonny Stone, a bespectacled preacher and outdoorsman enjoying retirement. He was loading his stand into a truck, and offered to lead the visitors to the crater. Before proceeding, he warned them about the site’s condition.
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