Throwback Thursday: When Ted Kennedy’s Plane Crashed

Fifty years ago, the young Senator was seriously injured returning to Massachusetts just months after President Kennedy's death.

Associated Press

Associated Press

On June 19, 1964, the United States Senate passed the Civil Rights Act. After a late vote in favor, a young Senator Ted Kennedy rushed to the airport and boarded a small chartered plane.

Kennedy was 32 years old, two years into the term he won in a special election. He was running late on his way to Springfield, Massachusetts, to accept the nomination for a full term in the Senate at the state Democratic Convention. Joining him were the convention’s keynote speaker Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, Bayh’s wife Marvella, his legislative aide Edward Moss, and a pilot, Edwin Zimny.

The group never made it to Springfield. Three miles from the runway, the plane flew too low, hit some trees, and crashed in an orchard. Moss and Zimny did not survive. The Bayhs escaped serious injury, and after helping his wife from the plane, Senator Bayh returned to pull Kennedy from the wreckage.

Kennedy was alive, but in bad shape. He had broken three vertebrae and two ribs, and had a collapsed lung. The crash instantly became one more instance of the Kennedy family’s bad luck. Ted’s older brother and sister had both died in plane crashes. His brother John F. Kennedy had been assassinated seven months earlier.

“There are more of us than there is trouble,” Robert Kennedy told a reporter that day. “The Kennedys intend to stay in public life. Good luck is something you make, and bad luck is something you endure.”

Kennedy would remain in the hospital recovering for five months. He used the time in the hospital to do more than endure, in his telling. “I never thought the time was lost,” he later told Good Housekeeping. “I tried to put my hours to good use. I had a lot of time to think about what was important and what was not and about what I wanted to do with my life. I think I gained something from those six months that will be valuable the rest of my life.”

Other events, good and bad, would come to be more prominent in remembrances of Kennedy’s life. There was the Chappaquiddick accident, the White House run, his struggle with brain cancer. But it was that first close call, 50 years ago, with its chilling parallels to the unluckier members of his family, that forced a young Kennedy to think about how he wanted to use whatever time remained for him. Thankfully, that time stretched for 45 years, during which he was able to build the record for which he is better remembered.