Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Death of Patsy Cline 
by Robert A. Waters 

On March 5, 1963, a single-engine Piper PA-24 Comanche took off from Fairfax Airport in Kansas City, Kansas.  Three Grand Ole Opry stars, Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins, along with pilot Randy Hughes, were heading back home to Nashville.  The artists had just performed several shows as part of a benefit performance for the family of deceased disc jockey "Cactus" Jack McCall. 

Cline, 30, had previously survived two horrific car accidents as she traveled across the country to perform.  In 1961, she and her brother Sam were involved in a head-on collision in Nashville.  Cline slammed into the windshield, suffering a long, disfiguring gash on her forehead (for the rest of her life, she wore wigs and head-bands to cover the scars).  Among other injuries, she had a shattered wrist, a broken rib, and dislocated hip. 

Six weeks later, she was performing again. 

Cline, born Virginia Patterson Tinsley in Winchester, Virginia, grew up dirt poor.  Her father abandoned the family when she was young, and she was raised by her single mom.  She began singing on local radio stations, then won a talent contest on the Arthur Godfrey Show.  That victory catapulted her to success.  She soon moved to Nashville, and in 1957, had her first hit on a small record label, "Walkin' After Midnight."  Hughes, her manager, arranged for her to sign with country music powerhouse, Decca Records.  Hit after hit followed, many songs becoming classics.  These included, "Crazy," "I Fall to Pieces," and "She's Got You." 

Many of Cline's records crossed over to become hits on the pop charts.  As she grew wealthy, the star helped other female country singers, including Dottie West, Brenda Lee, and Loretta Lynn.  Knowing poverty first hand, Cline sometimes gave groceries or money to upcoming singers who were struggling. 

Also on the plane leaving Kansas City was Lloyd Estel "Cowboy" Copas and Harold Franklin "Hawkshaw" HawkinsA one-time band member with Pee Wee King (composer of the classic "Tennessee Waltz,") Copas made it big in the 1940s and early 1950s.  His post-World War II song, "Filipino Baby," was his biggest hit. 

Hawkins was a hero of World War II.  He endured 15 straight months of combat, and won battle stars for participating in the Battle of the Bulge.  His most popular record was "Lonesome 77203. 

At 2:00 p.m., the Comanche, piloted by Randy Hughes, roared off the runway and into the sky.  The fact that Hughes only had 44 hours of flying time was ignored by his passengers.  They were tired and just wanted to get home.  In fact, Cline was suffering from a head cold. 

The plane made two stops to refuel: one at Rogers, Arkansas, and the last stop at Dyersburg Municipal Airport, in Tennessee.  By now, heavy clouds were forming in the east, directly in the flight path to Nashville.  The FAA report stated that the weather was "turbulent."  An FAA employee, LeRoy Neal, strongly advised Hughes against flying that evening.  In fact, the manager of the airport was so concerned that he offered the group free lodging and food if they would stay. 

An airport employee overheard a conversation between Cline and Hughes.  "If you want to go," she said, "we'll go.  If you want to stay, we'll stay."  Hughes quickly decided to go.  Ten minutes later, the doomed flight was skyward again. 

Shortly after 6:00 p.m., on a cloudy, gloomy evening, S. C. Ward heard a plane circling low over Camden, Tennessee.  He stepped outside to look, and saw a "light" in the distance.  He soon realized that the light was an airplane.  With engines at full throttle and roaring, it popped out of a huge cloudbank, then began diving toward the ground at a 45-degree angle.  The ground shook, and suddenly there was silence. 

Ward and others called the Tennessee Highway Patrol, and a search was launched for what seemed to be a missing plane.  Throughout the rainy night, searchers attempted to get a bead on where the plane had hit.  Finally, early the next morning, they stumbled on the wreckage.  Everyone on board was dead. 

Word had spread even before the plane was found that Cline, Copas, and Hawkins were missing.  Scavengers soon arrived, and stripped the wreckage of artifacts.  A purse carrying several thousand dollars belonging to Patsy Cline was missing, and never located. 

Randy Hughes was clearly at fault.  Licensed only to fly by sight, in the massive clouds and darkness, he could see no landmarks and lost his bearings. 

Of the Grand Ole Opry singers to die that night, only Cline's music is still played consistently on today's radio.  She was the first solo female singer to be sworn into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  She is consistently listed in the top 100 singers of all time.  She is credited with helping to create the "Nashville Sound," a blend of country and pop music.  

Patsy Cline was laid to rest on March 5, 1963, in her hometown of Winchester, Virginia.  She was thirty-years-old.