Harold Gifford, who co-piloted the Minneapolis Lakers plane to a safe landing in a Carroll cornfield in January 1960, autographs copies of a book he authored on the experience.
Harold Gifford, who co-piloted the Minneapolis Lakers plane to a safe landing in a Carroll cornfield in January 1960, autographs copies of a book he authored on the experience.
June 3, 2013

Harold Gifford, the decorated World War II airman who co-piloted a plane carrying the Minneapolis Lakers through a blizzarded January 1960 sky to the safety of a Carroll cornfield, chronicled those tense hours in a recently released book.

"I've heard coincidences are miracles God chooses to remain anonymous in," Gifford, 89, said. "We were battling that demon called fate, and he was out to get us, and it was a struggle."

On Friday, Gifford - of "Giff" as he is known to his friends and family - came back to Carroll for the first public signing of his new book, "The Miracle Landing." More than 60 people of all ages turned out to the event. Gifford ran out of books in the first half hour.

Copies of the $13.99 book were sold for a special signing price, $10, then autographed by Gifford. He even gave away several copies to older members of the community who had turned their porch lights on back in 1960 to illuminate the ground for the landing.

Gifford said he was overwhelmed to see how many people came to speak with him, and he enjoyed reminiscing with the citizens of Carroll, many of whom remember that night.

Long before that iconic landing, Gifford left high school one semester shy of graduation to join the Army, where he developed into a talented pilot. Last week, Gifford earned an honorary high school diploma when he visited his old school, Loyola High, in Mankato, Minn.

Gifford flew his first solo flight in 1943. By the time 1960 came around, and the Lakers' team plane took off from St. Louis, Gifford was a seasoned veteran. His time in the World War II Pacific Theater prepared Gifford for the treacherous conditions prevailing the night of the Carroll landing.

On their way back to Minneapolis after a Laker defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Hawks, Gifford and his co-pilot ran into a heavy snowstorm. If that hadn't been bad enough for a DC-3 in 1960, the plane lost electricity.

With no power and limited fuel, Gifford decided to attempt an emergency landing, but without a radio it would be difficult to find a landing strip.

At this point, Gifford passed over Carroll - a town Gifford had never visited. Flying beneath the clouds with only 600 feet of visibility Gifford passed over the town a few times, trying to spot a safe place for the troubled plane.

"There wasn't room for much else to be going through my head except doing what we were doing," Gifford said. "Flying the airplane, that's the very first thing I learned: you've got to fly the airplane and you can't allow yourself to get into a state where you panic."

The next time Gifford went over Carroll it lit up like a Christmas tree. The word had gotten out. All across the countryside, the people of the Carroll area turned their lights on to show Gifford the way.

"I was almost overcome with emotion," Gifford said. "All those people down there know we're in trouble, and there's not much they can do for us, but they're hoping for us and if we do have any trouble in the landing, they're sure gonna be there. Hell, you know, it was a very welcoming sight. It was kind of like if you were out on a life raft in the ocean for a long time and all of a sudden you see a big ship coming for you. That's what Carroll was."

Raised on a farm in Minnesota, Gifford spotted a field of unpicked corn, and knew it would be safe to land, because farmers would never leave obstacles in a cornfield.

"I knew that a cornfield was the safest place you could find to land because there are no rocks, they get them out of there," Gifford said. "I was a kid on a farm, I used to ride in the combine with my dad."