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Surely it has crossed your mind over the last few days after hearing the tragic and horrifying news about the plane crash that killed 43 souls, including former Flyer Brad McCrimmon and the team he coached, Lokomotiv of the KHL.

What if it happened here?

We often take for granted the amount of traveling athletes have to put up with (and we shouldn't feel too bad about it- they're compensated quite well for their troubles). But think about this: Every time you go to a sporting event – save for a few rare instances – the opposing team has traveled over 100 miles to the game, usually by plane. When we leave the final game of a three-game weekend series and complain about a little congestion on the surrounding roadways, the players on one or both of the teams still have five or six hours of travel ahead: bus, airport, plane, bus, hotel. A lot of the time that all happens while we're in bed. Teams finish a road game, get over to the airport for an 11:30 or midnight takeoff, land around 2 AM, and bus to a hotel or back to their cars. They'll finally get to a bed just a few hours before the rest of us wake up. Many times they'll have a game the following night.

This all happens several times a week for more than six months a year. Football is the only sport where the travel schedule is relatively light: maybe 12 total away games (including preseason and playoffs).

The other sports don’t have it as easy.

Take, for example, the presumed travel itinerary for the Phillies’ west coast swing last month:

Day 1: Finish Sunday afternoon game against Pirates, bus to airport, charter flight to Colorado, bus to hotel

Days 2 and 3: Games in Colorado

Day 4: Game in Colorado, bus to airport, flight to San Francisco, bus to hotel

Days 5-7: Relatively simple- three games in San Francisco

Day 8: Game in San Francisco, bus to airport, short flight to Los Angeles, bus to hotel

Days 9-10: Games in Los Angeles

Day 11: Game in Los Angeles, bus to airport, flight to Philadelphia, bus back to Citizens Bank Park

That’s four flights and eight bus trips (not including optional rides to the park each day) – 12 forms of “mass” transit – in 11 days. This happens at a similar pace for 6-8 months a year. Multiply that by 90 teams in three sports, and you have a staggering amount of miles. And this is before we even include college and minor league teams, who often don’t have the funds to fly large charter jets and are forced onto questionable smaller jets, props, and even buses. This is especially true for Big 12 and other midwest schools who are much farther from their opponents than, say, Big East schools, who are often an Amtrak ride away from their next game. Frankly, it’s amazing that we don’t hear about more incidents, and it's testament to how safe planes are, really. 

But what if something happened? What if an unthinkable and thankfully unlikely disaster like the one this week in Russia or that took out Marshall’s football team in 1970 happened? Besides the obvious and much more profound human impact, there would be far-reaching consequences for teams, cities, fans, and leagues. What would happen?

A 2001 New York Daily News article about the questionable travel habits of college sports teams explored that very question. Each league has a different plan… or lack thereof:

NFL: The commissioner would determine if the team would finish or cancel the remainder of the season if 15 or more players were lost in an accident. If the season is canceled, the team would have the first selection in the next draft. The club would also draft players from other teams until it restocked its roster. If fewer than 15 players were lost or the commissioner ordered the team to continue the season, the team would have first shot at all waiver claims for the remainder of the season. Teams that lost quarterbacks could replace them from any team with three quarterbacks available. Those clubs could protect two of their three QBs. Any quarterback selected by a team suffering from a disaster would revert to his original club the following year.

NBA: If a team lost five or more players, the club could select unprotected players from other franchises in a disaster draft. [from NY Times] The league would permit only five players on every other club to be protected, insuring that a fairly good player — the sixth best — could be drafted by the club suffering the tragedy. Each of the contributing clubs could lose only one player.

NHL: A teams could restock its roster with other players selected through a disaster draft.

MLB: Baseball has a confidential contingency plan to assist any franchise that lost five or more players as the result of a tragedy. MLB spokesman Rich Levin said recently that he believes the plan would provide immediate relief for a franchise struck by a disaster.


That’s a little vague from MLB, so here’s more from a 1992 NY Times article about the American League’s protocol, which was almost put into effect after an accident involving the Angels’ bus: 

If six or more players on one team are disabled, the plan kicks in. This involves selecting players, through a draft, from the remaining teams. The league president would determine how many players are "frozen" — or protected — by the healthy teams. In addition, players with no-trade clauses would be protected.


Essentially, all four leagues have what amounts to an expansion draft for the crippled organization- years of setbacks, with significant financial consequences.

We take for granted the fact that when we show up to a sporting event – in whatever weather – the opposing team is there. But just in the last few years, there have been a number of “incidents” (that’s in quotes because most of these, while scary, were "routine" issues) involving local teams:

2005: Villanova’s basketball team had the scariest incident of all. They were forced to make an emergency landing after their 50-seat charter plane lost its ability to climb: [ESPN]

He said the flight attendant came out to tell the traveling party on the 50-seat plane to prepare for "an emergency crash landing."

"We were in the crash position for the landing," coach Jay Wright said. "We were never told that it was going to be OK. Everyone on the plane thought we were going to die."

Wright said there was "dead silence," during the landing and that no one on the plane panicked.

The plane was in the air for a total of 12 minutes but safely landed back in Providence. The cause was apparently an instrument failure that affected the plane's ability to climb.

When the plane landed, there were fire trucks waiting for the passengers.

Sheridan said the flight attendant instructed Wright how to open the emergency exit door if the plane were to land in the water and how to get people out of the plane in water. She also gave tasks to other members of the traveling party.

"There was a round of applause when we landed," Sheridan said.


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2010: The Phillies' Delta 747 charter, which was returning the team from Game 5 of the NLCS in San Francisco, was forced to perform a routine go-around when another plane was on the runway: 

On Friday morning at around 6:20AM, the Phillies' team plane, a Delta 747 charter, was on its final approach, two and a half miles out from runway 27R at Philadelphia International Airport.  At the same time, an American Airlines flight was given clearance to takeoff from the same runway.  Their alert pilot noticed the approaching Phillies plane and relayed his concern to air traffic control. After a tense exchange, the controller told the Delta flight to abort the landing and perform a go-around.

Crisis was completely averted, but according to FAA guidelines, there should have been a three mile buffer between the two planes.  Usually, larger planes will land on runway 27R and takeoff from parallel runway 27L.  At the time, 27L was just finishing up construction and unavailable- even though the controller offered it as a last minute option to the Phils.


A few weeks later: The Eagles hit severe turbulence returning from Dallas: [Philly Sports Daily]

Without warning from the pilot the plane ran into heavy turbulence and did a couple of free falls over a course of an estimated minute and a half of rocky flight.

“I don’t know if it was life-threatening or anything like that,” said guard Reggie Wells. “It was serious, though. It was the worst turbulence I’ve ever been in, I’ll tell you that. Guys spilled drinks on themselves. Some guys were falling over. It wasn’t a light one, that’s for sure.”


2011: Just yesterday, the Phillies had a rather eventful, air condition-less flight that was forced to fly at 22,000 feet and briefly diverted to Green Bay.

In the end, only the Villanova flight and perhaps the Phillies' go-around were cause for heightened concern (especially for Villanova), but these are just a few anecdotal examples that we know about of less-than-routine trips for our teams, who take to the skies nearly every day. In fact, I believe the Eagles will takeoff for St. Louis tomorrow morning. 

Keep flying high, Birds.

Thanks to this SB Nation article for the links to the articles reference here