The odds of an athletic department having to endure a fatal plane crash involving employees are long.
The odds of an athletic department having to endure a fatal plane crash involving employees are long. The odds of it happening twice in 11 years are longer still. But that's where Oklahoma State University found itself in November 2011, when the single-engine plane carrying two of its women's basketball coaches crashed in Arkansas, killing all four people on board. In January 2001, two OSU men's basketball players and six additional individuals affiliated with the program were killed when their small plane crashed in Colorado.
"These kinds of accidents are tragic, but they're also rare." says university vice president and general counsel Gary Clark. "Obviously, most universities have not had any kind of an accident or anything to make them stop and say, 'Well, maybe we have to do something about this.' "
On Nov. 30, the board of regents for the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges unanimously approved a new policy for OSU employees outlining procedures for securing reputable aircraft and pilots when traveling by air, as well as vehicles and drivers when traveling by ground. It is the third time OSU travel procedures have been addressed in the wake of the 2001 crash.
The institution of a tighter team travel policy followed that first tragedy, and then a policy amendment in 2004 made it unambiguous that coaches traveling without student-athletes could do so at their own discretion. "That was the extent of the policy on coaches' travel at that time," says Clark, who chaired a 17-member task force assembled after the 2011 crash to reevaluate air travel protocols for coaches. "Right away, we started thinking two things about our charge that we felt were really too limiting. One, there was no reason to single out coaches, that whatever the policy was, it should apply to all employees of the university - administrators, staff, student employees, everyone. And, since much of our employee travel, at least in terms of the number of trips, is done by motor vehicle rather than aircraft, we made sure that we had some safety standards in place for motor vehicle travel."
That said, Clark admits that coaches fly more frequently than the typical university employee, though the task force didn't attempt to break down the numbers. In the end, the new policy language devotes 1,580 words to air travel, or seven times the number devoted to ground travel. It defines aircraft by type (single- and multiengine piston, single and multiengine turbine, and jet), identifies seven preapproved private air carriers (provided they continue to abide by the terms of the policy) and outlines pilot requirements (including a minimum of 1,000 hours as a pilot in command and a minimum of 100 hours in control of the aircraft in question).
Five members of the OSU task force were accomplished pilots, and the school is in the process of hiring an aviation consultant who will clear all employee air-travel requests. Says Clark, "Let's say that a donor owns a plane, he's a wrestling fan and he's willing to fly John Smith, our wrestling coach, or an assistant coach to visit recruits or to go to a tournament. What we would expect to happen then is that Coach Smith would inform the aviation consultant: 'Here's a donor who's willing to do it. Here are his qualifications. Here is his airplane and its safety and maintenance records.' So the aviation consultant would look at those things and, if he needed additional information, request that or say, 'Yes, this plane and this pilot are approved.' "
One such request/approval is good for six months, at which time all pilot qualifications (including medical condition) and aircraft records must be reassessed, per the policy.
The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to release the findings of its investigation into the 2011 crash that killed OSU women's basketball head coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna sometime early this year, according to Clark. All that is known for now is that the fixed-wing single-engine Piper PA-28 was owned and piloted by 82-year-old former Oklahoma state senator and OSU alum Olin Branstetter. Sitting beside him was his wife, Paula, also an accomplished pilot. Both were killed.
Meanwhile, Budke's wife Shelley helped steer the policy-making. "She was interested in appearing before the task force, and we felt that it was her right to do that, to speak from the perspective of someone who had suffered a very deep, personal loss," Clark says. "A number of the things that she mentioned that she felt the policy ought to have were a part of what we adopted. It was reassuring - to me, at least. I have not talked to Mrs. Budke, but I hope that she would be comfortable with the policy as it has been approved."
Despite the long odds of another tragedy, Clark never doubted that the task force, which met on seven separate occasions, was engaged in important work. He still tears up when recounting the effort. "Given the tragedy and the loss to these coaches' and the Branstetters' families," he says, "emotion is certainly a part of it."
He adds that he was not particularly surprised when initially seeking the input of peer institutions with like-sized athletic departments that several had very limited coaches' travel policies, while a few schools admitted to having none at all. "They just said, 'If you adopt something, would you mind sharing it with us?' "
It can be said with some confidence that no school has scrutinized travel more than Oklahoma State. "We're not saying that this policy would have prevented the accident a year ago November. I don't know that it would. We don't know what caused that accident," Clark says. "We were charged with coming up with something that provides for reasonable safety consistent with what we can do. As I said when I presented this policy to the board, if we just wanted to have the safest travel, we might say you have to travel in an Army tank everywhere you go. Obviously, that's not reasonable. But if somebody is tempted to do something that's on the edge or maybe past the edge, we wanted to have a mechanism in place to stop him or her from doing that."