On a winter night in Alaska in 1993, Navy women’s basketball coach Stefanie Pemper boarded a charter flight on a night so frigid, ice had formed on the windows inside the plane. Then a graduate assistant at Alaska-Anchorage, Pemper was on her way home with the team following a game against an in-state rival, and she recalled having to use a credit card to scrape the windows clean while keeping her feet warm inside a player’s sweaty sneakers rather than remain in her pumps.
Normally the team flew commercial, but that night the charter was the only flight available to the Anchorage airport. It also was the first and only time Pemper accompanied the team on a flight during her one season as an entry-level assistant at the Division II school and the last time she flew charter for business.
Pemper spoke about that uncomfortable indoctrination to charter air travel in the wake of a plane crash last week that killed Oklahoma State women’s coach Kurt Budke, assistant Miranda Serna and two others, suggesting the tragedy perhaps could have been averted with additional foresight.
“I know why these big-time programs charter flights. I get it,” said Pemper, who flies commercial with Navy. “Those of us who fly commercial, we obviously just deal with the schedules of commercial, but that’s like I said, maybe those programs, they can’t get a commercial flight out until the next morning, and maybe that’s time away from their families, and maybe those schools need to change rules if necessary and let those families fly with the team. I mean, I don’t know, but it’s just really, really sad, and I just hope people really think about safety and if ways could be improved to protect these athletic programs and players and coaches.”
The plane carrying Budke, Serna, pilot Olin Bransetter, and wife Paula, 79, was a single-engine Piper that went down in Perryville, Ark., approximately 45 miles northwest of Little Rock, school officials said. The cause of the accident remains under investigation, but weather has been ruled out.
The National Transportation Safety Board is handling the case, with its focus on airframe, the pilot’s medical condition and possibly a loss of control of the plane. NTSB investigator Jason Aguilar said there is no indication the pilot would not have been qualified to fly the plane.
Oklahoma State officials, meantime, are re-evaluating their travel policies in the aftermath of the crash, the second such tragedy to befall the Oklahoma State community in 10 years. In January 2001, a plane carrying 10 people affiliated with the men’s basketball team, including two players, crashed in Colorado. There were no survivors.
After that crash, Oklahoma State officials modified the school’s travel policy, mandating at least two turbine engines for planes transporting student-athletes. Coaches, however, were and still are permitted to make their own decisions regarding the type of planes on which they fly.
“Recruiting is such an important part of your program being successful, so you’re constantly going,” said American University women’s coach Matt Corkery, who knew Budke from their days coaching junior college in Texas in the mid-1990s. “Whether it’s in a car or commercial flight or with [Oklahoma State’s] circumstances unfortunately with the small plane, I think just the amount of time we spend in transit, it’s always a tragedy when something like this happens, but it could really happen to anybody.”
All the coaches at major programs in the Washington metropolitan area routinely fly commercial on recruiting trips because airports such as Dulles International Airport, Reagan National and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall are within a short ride. But in more rural parts of the country, where getting to a commercial airport often can take longer than the flight itself, coaches in many instances choose the expediency of charter air travel.
In the case of Budke and Serna, the two were on a trip to Little Rock to evaluate prospective recruits two days before the Cowgirls were to play a pair of games over the weekend. Both of those games were canceled after the crash.
“When you have kids and a family, every time I get on a plane, I say a prayer,” said Maryland women’s coach Brenda Frese, who last spoke with Budke over the summer when the two were in the same gym in the Midwest on a recruiting visit. “Yeah, I’ve become very much more in tune and probably sensitive to that since having kids, but that can happen with you just getting in your car. It can come at anytime obviously, and you have that perspective of just how fragile life is.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.