Link: Jim Reeves Book
Ramsey Dorris Hughes, otherwise known as Randy, was Patsy Cline’s manager and a very new pilot, who had logged only 44:25 hours in the Piper Comanche he had acquired a few months earlier. It had an odd “N” number — N-7000 — and Randy liked to brag that it had belonged to Mr. Piper personally — the owner of the company that manufactured the plane. Roy Drusky, who was also a pilot, told me years ago that he flew with Randy to pick up the airplane when he bought it and Kathy Hughes said that when her husband purchased the plane, he had not yet learned to fly.
Mr. Hughes was taught to fly principally by George Mummert — the same man who also gave lessons to Jim Reeves some months later. Since both Hughes and Reeves ended up dying in plane crashes, a lot of blame as been assigned to Mr. Mummert, whom it is unfairly assumed did an inadequate job of teaching these two men. But actually, George was regarded by pilots in Nashville as a very good instructor who would not allow student pilots to slough off. He was a stern taskmaster and stickler for doing things right.
However, there is another instructor whom Randy and Jim both had in common: Elmo Merriwether. Curiously, instead of having one of the FAA reps in Nashville administer their flight exams, both Hughes and Reeves privately hired Elmo to do so. He was known to be unduly impressed by celebrities and susceptible to the influence of money. It would appear he passed both these men before they were ready to fly. Hughes made a gross error in judgment in attempting to fly after dark and in inclement weather, and a year and a half later, Jim Reeves got himself into a bad weather situation he could not handle.
After playing some shows at the Municipal auditorium in Kansas City, on Sunday, March 3, 1963, Patsy Cline had changed her mind about accompanying Dottie and Bill West in their station wagon back to Nashville. She did this after a phone conversation with her husband, Charlie Dick. Mildred Keith, who took one of the last photographs of Cline backstage prior to the final performance, told me in a taped interview years ago that she overheard Patsy literally crying on Dottie’s shoulder about the fact that Mr. Dick had allegedly pressured her to get home the quickest way possible, because one of the children was ill and, claimed Mildred, he was supposedly tired of babysitting. True or not, Dottie later confirmed that she was surprised and worried when Patsy informed her she would fly back to Nashville in Randy Hughes’ small airplane, especially given the bad weather conditions. West expressed her alarm to Patsy, who brushed aside her concerns by saying philosophically, “Don't worry about me, Hoss. When it's my time to go, it's my time.” Friends later recalled that in the weeks prior to her death, Patsy talked about feeling a sense of impending doom. She began giving away personal items to friends, and wrote her will on Delta Air Lines stationery. She had told Jordanaires singer Ray Walker as she left the Opry the week before, “Honey, I’ve had two bad ones (accidents). The third one will either be a charm or it’ll kill me.”
Cline, Hughes, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins had gone out to the Fairfax airport in Kansas City on Monday, March 4th, with the expectation they would fly home, but couldn’t leave due to bad weather, so returned to the Town House Motor Hotel. Scant information about their last night has emerged, except that Patsy was suffering from a bad cold and was said to have been up most of the night coughing.
Finally, the four entertainers were able to leave Kansas City around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5, 1963. They made a stop in Rogers, Arkansas for refueling, and were airborne a mere 15 minutes later. Pilot Hughes later made contact with the Dyersburg, Tennessee airport and landed there at 5:05 p.m.
When the aircraft taxied up to the modest terminal, William Braese, manager and operator of the airport, greeted the passengers. He recalled that one of the men, who was sitting in the right front seat, got out first and put on his overcoat because it was cold. Then Randy Hughes got out and remarked that this type of flying was tiresome. He had had to dodge storm clouds all the way from their departure, due to a cold front that was moving through. (The temperature at that time was only 43). Randy told Braese that the plane wouldn’t need much fuel because he had been “hedge hopping’ behind the weather front. Patsy Cline got out from the back seat.
Hughes proceeded to the Flight Service Station (FSS) while Patsy, Hawk and Cope went to the airport restaurant. Witnesses recognized the four celebrities and noticed that Patsy had ordered a shrimp cocktail and iced tea.
Hughes requested a weather briefing for the remainder of the flight to Nashville. FAA man Leroy Neal advised him that the conditions were marginal for VFR flight, and the FAA accident report later described them as "turbulent." (Hughes, like Jim Reeves, was only qualified to fly under conditions in which it was possible to navigate by sight rather than solely by instruments).
Neal said that Randy stated he was usually very much concerned with the 2,049-foot TV tower north of the city of Nashville, but that he was familiar with the terrain and obstructions along the intended route of the flight. Neal again reminded Hughes that darkness would come early due to the cloudiness. At that point Randy asked if the Dyersburg runways were lighted at night, in case he had to return and Leroy told him they were.
Hughes then went to the airport restaurant, and discussed the matter with the three entertainers, then returned to the weather office to inform Mr. Neal that he had made the decision to continue the flight to Nashville. In the interim, Randy had called his wife Kathy in Nashville, and later told Mr. Neal that she had said that the sun was shining there — which is what has caused some fans to blame Mrs. Hughes for encouraging her husband to continue homeward. But Kathy personally told me this is not correct, that she did not attempt to influence Randy in that regard. She did, however, phone Cornelia Fort Airpark in Nashville, at her husband’s behest, and ask them to turn on the runway lights for his expected arrival.
Hughes told Evelyn Braese “Just talked to my wife and she said the sun just broke out in Nashville, so we are going on.”
When airport manager William Braese realized they were going to continue the flight, he attempted to discourage Hughes by pointing out the frontal clouds which were visible to the east. Braese explained the “fade out point” of the Omni station (navigation radio signal) on a night such as this. He also reminded him that he would be flying over a sparsely settled area where no lights would be visible for VFR. But Randy stated that when he made the Tennessee River, he would familiar with the terrain beyond that point and would have no trouble. This proved to be a fatal assumption on his part. Randy told Leroy Neal that he would attempt the flight, but would return for the night if the weather worsened enroute.
About ten minutes before take-off, airport manager Braese overheard Patsy Cline, standing in front of the FSS, remark to Randy Hughes “If you want to stay, we will stay and if you want to go we will go.” But Hughes was adamant that he could get them home safely. Randy was definitely a Type A personality, who was always restless and on the go, known to spread himself too thin, and he was also overly confident of his abilities.
So Patsy got in the plane first, sitting down in the left rear seat. Then Hawkshaw Hawkins got in next. As they settled in and hung up clothes, Hughes and Copas chatted briefly. Then Randy took the pilot’s position and Cowboy Copas climbed in last. The engine was started, Hughes turned the aircraft, received another weather briefing by radio and then sat there for three or four minutes. One can only speculate on what the four occupants of the small plane talked about.
Next, the yellow Piper Comanche with the green stripes taxied into position and took off at 6:07 p.m. It was subsequently determined the plane was slightly overweight, though within maximum tolerances.
A short time later, Mr. S.C. Ward — himself a pilot — was in his office about four miles west of Camden, Tennessee, when he heard the sound of an aircraft engine pass over his building. He associated the sound with a low-flying aircraft and said it was just above tree tops, not more than 300 feet above the ground. He thought the plane must be lost and trying to orientate by the lights of Camden and the highway. Ward was so concerned he immediately went outside. He continued to hear but not see the plane as it seemed to be traveling in a northerly direction. As he continued to look for the aircraft, he heard the engine noise increase. Ward’s first thought was that it was going to buzz a house, and that this was a foolish thing to do.
In the next moment, Mr. Ward observed a white light appear from the overcast and descend toward the ground at an angle of dive of 45 degrees. The engine stopped and there was a dull crash, then complete silence.
Mr. Ward notified the Tennessee Highway Patrol, and estimated the location of the crash site as near a forest fire tower observation post. A preliminary search was made of the area by a couple of law enforcement officers around 7 p.m., but they found nothing. By 11:30 p.m., a search party was organized, and carried on through the night. Meanwhile, WSM in Nashville broadcast the tragic news that the plane carrying the four Opry stars was overdue and presumed down.
The wreckage was finally located at about 6:10 a.m. Wednesday morning by a young man and his father. Roger Miller was among those who went searching for survivors: "As fast as I could, I ran through the woods screaming their names, through the brush and the trees. And I came up over this little rise, oh, my God, there they were. It was ghastly.” Soon souvenir hunters arrived to scavenge the area. Patsy’s money and dress from her last performance were never recovered, though her watch (which stopped at 6:20 p.m.), and cigarette lighter were donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Years later, parts of the plane were put up for auction on eBay for tens of thousands of dollars, having been stored for years in the barn of a local resident.
What apparently caused the crash is that as Randy Hughes flew east toward the Tennessee River (which is just east of Camden, Tenn.), he ran into clouds and lost his orientation. He should have known that clouds are lower over water, and at that particular point the river is wider, like a lake. Losing his visual references to the ground, he inadvertently put the plane into a right hand diving turn, with the nose down 25°, according to crash investigators. In essence, Hughes made a loop such that he had turned south, then west and was flying north when he flew over Mr. Ward’s location, just before crashing.
It is a certainty that the passengers of the aircraft knew Hughes was lost and they were in clouds. Hughes had no frame of reference as to the plane’s attitude unless he looked at his instruments, which Randy apparently failed to do. The passengers probably did not know they were in a turn, because the g forces at that point would not have told them such, but Hughes surely realized the plane was accelerating. When he broke through the clouds, he likely applied power in an attempt to bring the nose up but it was too late. Evidence showed the propellor was turning at maximum rpm’s at the time of impact.
The aircraft’s propellor contacted a small red oak tree 30 feet above the ground while the aircraft was in a 26-degree nose-down attitude. The propellor severed the tree. The right wing subsequently struck a tree 32 feet to the right, causing the plane to become inverted, continuing downward at a 45° angle before it hit the ground about 62 feet from the initial contact with the tree. Debris was strewn across an area 166 feet long and 130 feet wide.
The morning after the tragedy, Jim Reeves’ pilot, Bill Larson, was asked to fly FAA inspectors William Whitmore and Edward Ruckman to fly them to west Tennessee. Then they proceeded to Dyersburg where they interviewed William Braese.
On the flight home to Nashville, as they neared the Tennessee River, William Whitmore put his hands over the eyes of Bill Larson, who was flying their charter plane, and said “okay Bill, now get us home safely.” Even though Larson was a far more experienced pilot than Randy Hughes, and was qualified to fly by instruments, the fact that he was blinded by Whitmore’s hands — in effect, simulating the fact that Hughes had lost all frame of reference — Larson too accidentally put the plane into a “graveyard spiral” just like Randy had done. Proving, of course, that once Hughes ran into the clouds, the accident was inevitable unless he had been able to re-orient himself through instruments alone. In Larson’s case, Whitmore removed his hands from Bill’s eyes and hence he was able to correct the attitude of the plane and proceed safely home to Music City.
The deaths of the four Opry stars was an avoidable tragedy. In aviation, pilots speak of a phenomenon known as “get-there-itis.” All of the four performers were not only tired from their exhausting weekend in Kansas City, but Patsy was ill with a bad cold, and the flight from Kansas had been grueling due to the choppy air. Hughes himself had remarked on this upon landing at Dyersburg.
Bill Larson recalls that Patsy was always afraid of being late for a performance, and was probably anxious to get home that day, especially since — according to Mildred Keith who’d overheard Patsy’s weeping conversation with Dottie West backstage in Kansas City — Charlie Dick had allegedly implored her to hurry home.
Jim Reeves repeatedly criticized Randy’s poor decision in continuing a flight into conditions where VFR flight was not possible, and lamented "that's the reason they're all dead. You can't make a mistake in an aircraft." Jim vowed he would never make a similar error. In fact, according to his guitarist, Leo Jackson, Reeves made that point over and over again in the months to come.
Though Jim did not put his plane into a graveyard spiral like Randy did (I describe minute-by-minute the Reeves flight in my book, “Jim Reeves: His Untold Story”), he nevertheless made some faulty assumptions about the weather conditions and his abilities to navigate successfully home.
Patsy Cline and the others did not need to die that day. But as the Good Book reminds us, from the time we are born our days are numbered, and this tragedy — as hard as it is for us to accept — was simply meant to be.
I have a number of anecdotes about Patsy in my 672-page book, "Jim Reeves: His Untold Story." I describe how Reeves and Cline interacted, shared drinks at Tootsie's, etc. I think if you are a Patsy fan you will find this fascinating. You can order my book at the link below.
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Link: Jim Reeves Book