November 30th marked 15 years since the passing of professional wrestler Tim Woods. Ric Flair once called him “the man who saved wrestling,” and for good reason. You may have heard the tale before, but you might be very unfamiliar with Woods’ role in one of the most infamous and history-altering incidents in professional wrestling.
On October 4th, 1975, five passengers and one pilot boarded a twin-engine Cessna 310 in Charlotte bound for Wilmington, North Carolina. It was scheduled to be a 45-minute flight. Upon its descent into Wilmington Airport, the plane ran out of gas, stalled out and clipped the top of the treeline and a utility pole before crashing to the ground.
The pilot was a 28-year-old Vietnam veteran named Joseph Michael Farkas, who had difficulty during liftoff in Charlotte due to the unplanned total weight of the passengers — several of whom were professional wrestlers. He made the mistake of not adequately distributing the weight of the passengers in the plane and, once airborne, elected to dump fuel in an effort to lessen the burden on the tiny plane.
Farkas radioed the Wilmington control tower around 6:25pm to report that one of his engines had failed. The plane crashed between the railroad tracks and a prison farm a half mile away from the airport. Several of the victims were thrown from the airplane, and one was pinned between two seats. Farkas underwent surgery for head injuries late into the night, slipped into a coma, and died the following year.
The passengers on that flight were National Wrestling Alliance executive David Crockett, professional wrestler Robert Bruggers, professional wrestler Johnny Valentine, a 24-year-old wrestler by the name of Ric Flair, and promoter George Burrell Woodin. Most of them sustained severe injuries. Woodin suffered a broken back. The young Flair had his back broken in three places, and was later told by doctors he may never wrestle again. Bruggers had a steel rod inserted into his spine and elected to retire from the business. The veteran Johnny Valentine, who switched seats mid-flight with Flair, was paralyzed for life.
Flair, of course, followed a vigourous physical therapy regimen and made an almost miraculous comeback to the ring eight months later to face Wahoo McDaniel. Goodwin beat Flair back to the ring by seven months and two weeks.
You see, George Burrell Woodin wasn’t his “real” name, except for the fact that it was his real name. Some fans knew him as Tim Woods, but most of the world knew him as the masked superstar Mr. Wrestling … and that was a very real problem.
Mr. Wrestling was a “babyface” — a good guy. Ric Flair was a bad guy. In 1975, professional wrestlers and promoters went above and beyond to maintain the suspension of disbelief that these feuds were legitimate. The storylines that were presented in the ring and on the screen were treated as real-life disagreements between professional athletes competing for championships, money and pride. The only thing that kept these combatants from killing each other were the officials who enforced rules and regulations … as far as the fans knew. At the time, Mr. Wrestling was in a feud with both Johnny Valentine and Ric Flair.
While lying in a hospital bed, and with no way of knowing if his compatriots were alive or dead, Mr. Wrestling provided his true name (George Burrell Goodwin), and then lied about his job to preserve the illusion of wrestling. He knew that if word got out that a good guy, the owner of the company’s brother and three bad guys were all on the same plane, it could ruin that illusion forever.