Anybody who knows anything about Patsy Cline knows, at the very least, that she was killed in a plane crash on March 5, 1963. Those who know a little bit more know that she was returning from a benefit concert in Kansas City, was travelling with fellow performers Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Randy Hughes, pilot of the plane, Patsy’s manager and Cowboy Copas’ son-in-law. You probably also know that Patsy was only thirty years old when she died. For those of you (and here I am included) who know a little too much about Patsy, you know that Randy Hughes’ plane was a single engine, four seat Piper Comanche, serial number N7000P and that he had only taken possession of the plane in 1962, less than a year before the crash. You know that the weather between Kansas City and Nashville was extremely turbulent, necessitating numerous stops on the way back to Tennessee in order to let the bad weather pass on to the east. You know that their last stop was in Dyersburg, in western Tennessee, to refuel and that the airport manager warned them of the bad weather between Dyersburg and Nashville. After deciding to press on anyway, you know that the plane took off at 6:07 PM and crashed thirteen or eighteen minutes after takeoff in nearby Camden, Tennessee, killing all aboard (Patsy’s watch stopped at 6:25 but the plane’s dashboard clock stopped at 6:20). According to the report issued by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), Randy Hughes was not an “instrument rated pilot,” meaning he could not tell the position of the plane without visual contact with the ground, that the engine was “developing substantial power at the time of the crash,” (leading investigators to believe that Randy thought he was climbing when he was, in fact, diving) and that its propellers severed the top of a tree, instantly separating the propellers, turning the plane upside down and plunging it into the ground at an estimated 280 miles per hour. It took just two seconds from the time the propellers struck the top of the tree to the plane hitting the ground. All aboard were killed instantly.
The next day, following the discovery of the wreckage, looters descended upon the site, stealing anything they could take as a souvenir of the event, including pieces of the plane and the three dresses that Patsy wore at her final concert. The dresses have not been recovered to this day. In the end, the cause of the crash was officially deemed “pilot error.”
When I was a kid, my mom liked to play her Patsy Cline records on the large stereo console in our living room. By the time I was born Patsy had already been dead two years, but Mom remained a huge fan of Patsy, an appreciation that had been cemented by her seeing Patsy in concert in nearby Joplin, Missouri sometime in 1962. It was there that Patsy had autographed one of my mom’s albums, To Nancy, Your friend, Patsy Cline. Neither I nor my little brothers were ever allowed to touch this album.
In 1985 I went to the theatre and saw the movie Sweet Dreams, the biopic about Patsy’s life. Around this same time my father sold the autographed album to a neighbor for twenty-five cents. It came as no surprise when the savvy neighbor refused to sell it back.
Fast forward to 2012: My mom has been gone for five years now and the fiftieth anniversary of Patsy’s death is quickly approaching. My fascination with Patsy Cline has begun to borderline on obsession; one whole room of the house I share with my partner, Tim, is entirely dedicated to Patsy…albums, singles, EPs, photos, magazines, newspapers, costumes, books, movies, movie posters…a mini museum tucked away in our unassuming two story brick house. It is this obsession that led me to a discovery a year ago, a discovery that threatened to challenge the findings of the CAB and to dramatically alter our perceptions of what we think happened on March 5, 1963.
The sudden loss of Patsy Cline, who appeared to have been finally attaining the fame she had so desperately fought for, leaves us to ponder the cause of the crash, perhaps too much. We consider the “what if’s” and “if only’s” and want to find other answers. Why did Randy decide to fly in bad weather? What if they had waited out the storm? Was the crash really caused by pilot error or was there some other cause?
One afternoon, while researching the crash yet again, I typed in the search “Piper Comanche.” Among the myriad search results was an article from the United Kingdom titled “This Should Not Happen to You,” and discussed accidents involving the Piper Comanche. The incident discussed one that occurred in 2001, and it sounded eerily familiar. (www.comanchepilot.com)
In the 2001 crash, the pilot was flying a 1960 Piper Comanche and had just taken off from a local airfield with one passenger. According to the article, “takeoff at 1515 hours appeared normal” but at 1527 hours a “mayday” call was transmitted by another plane that witnessed the Comanche going into “a descent, pointing nose down, and ‘spiraling’ or ‘spinning.’”
The plane, like Randy Hughes’ plane back in 1963, was completely destroyed in the crash and both occupants were killed upon impact. It was this next bit of evidence, however, that differed so greatly from the 1963 crash and would send me on a quest that would last the better part of a year: according to the coroner reports, both pilot and copilot of the 2001 crash had suffered from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, caused by “exhaust gasses that escaped from a fatigue crack, which had formed in one of the stub pipes.” These gasses had entered the cabin through the heating vents and incapacitated the pilot within twelve minutes. Depending on which clock was correct, Patsy’s watch or the plane’s dashboard clock, Randy’s plane was in the air for either thirteen or eighteen minutes prior to the crash…far longer than the plane in the 2001 incident. And Randy’s plane had been in the air for hours prior to that, slowly making its way across the states of Missouri, Arkansas and into Tennessee behind the slow moving storm. Given the time of year, they were most certainly using the plane’s heater, as well. In fact, Patsy was reported to have complained about how cold the flight to Kansas City was (according to the CAB report, it was 43 degrees at the time of the crash). To add to the mix, all aboard were heavy smokers, and cigarette smoke is now known to elevate CO levels in the blood stream. The airport manager in Dyersburg noted later that, aside from fueling the plane, he also emptied the plane’s ashtrays.
Is it possible that carbon monoxide poisoning contributed to the crash? And, if so, wouldn’t this have been revealed in Randy Hughes’ autopsy? I remember reading that an autopsy was performed but, aside from that, nothing specific.
To test my hypothesis, at this point more of a “hunch,” I first consulted the existing biographies. According to Ellis Nassour, an autopsy was done “on the remains of the pilot (Randy) to rule out drugs or alcohol” as a contributing factor in the cause of the crash. There was no mention of carbon monoxide testing. Undeterred, I went back online and located the original report from the CAB, now housed at the National Archives in Atlanta. The report, entered into evidence as part of a class action lawsuit by the surviving family members to collect insurance money, (Stuyvesant Insurance Company v. Katha Loma Hughes et al., Civil Action No. 3547) mentioned “pathological examination of the pilot” but stopped there. I contacted the National Archives and began requesting copies of the trial; documents. Although I was able to purchase the full report and copies of photos taken by the CAB at the crash site back in 1963 I was not finding what I needed: proof that Randy was actually tested for CO poisoning. As the court documents took up the better part of a large box and I was never certain that the copies I was paying for would hold the information I sought, I made arrangements to visit Atlanta so that I could look through the box myself. Unfortunately, due to my job at the university, this trip would have to wait until October, three months away. In the meantime, I wrote a letter to Charlie Dick, Patsy’s widower, asking for his assistance. While purposefully vague in my reasoning, I told Charlie that I was trying to disprove the theory of “pilot error.”
“If my theory is correct,” I wrote in conclusion, “the official finding of “pilot error” may be laid to rest and radically change what happened that awful night in 1963. I hope that I’m right and can do a little to clear Randy’s name regarding the crash and, hopefully, give you the families more information.”
I then e-mailed the funeral home in Camden where the bodies were taken after the crash but, when I hadn’t heard from them, contacted Bill Kee at the Benton County, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce (Benton County is where Camden is located). Mr. Kee put me in touch with Rhonda Tippitt of the Benton County Library. Ms. Tippitt replied stating that “the funeral home does not have it (the autopsy report) and we did not have a hospital at that time. Everyone (here) seems to be of the same consensus that you would need to contact the state for copies of the autopsy report.”
I thanked Rhonda and e-mailed Lisa Robinson of the State Medical Examiner’s Office. Lisa’s response, while amusing, didn’t get me any closer to finding an autopsy report.
“In 1963 there was no Tennessee Medical Examiner…we didn’t get one until 1965 or 1966. Back in 1963 autopsies weren’t as routine as they are today…and I’m pretty sure that standard forensic panels of common drugs probably didn’t exist back then, either. How do they know that Mr. Hughes didn’t suffer a seizure or heart attack during that flight?”
I contacted the NTSB via e-mail, requesting any records of an autopsy but hit another dead end. “We don’t have those records, either,” was the response. Based on information I found online, which stated that the state of Pennsylvania might be in possession of the records of the Stuyvesant Insurance Company, I e-mailed the Supervisor of Reference Services at the Pennsylvania State Archives but was informed that this information was incorrect. Based on yet another false lead, I contacted the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, looking for the CAB records from 1963. “We have very few general aviation accident reports among our records,” they replied. “The collection consists of mostly commercial aircraft reports.”
A little discouraged at this point, I went back to original newspaper articles, looking for clues. The March 6, 1963 article on the crash on the front page of the Nashville Banner mentioned a Dr. A.T. Hix in Camden, who assisted in the recovery of the bodies. Excited, and a little irritated with myself for having overlooked this information, I re- contacted the Benton County library. If Dr. Hix was still living perhaps he could shed some light on what Randy was and was not tested for. I quickly received a reply, stating that first, the newspaper misspelled the doctor’s name…it was Hicks. Second, and most distressing, is that Dr. Hicks “passed away several years ago,” and that “nobody seems to know where his records ended up.” It was once again suggested that I check with the state medical examiner’s office. Armed with this new information…and the actual name of the doctor in question, I re-contacted Lisa at the state medical examiner’s office. As usual, her response was humorous and to the point.
“After performing functions for the state medical examiner for fifteen years,” she wrote, “one thing I learned is that doctors never turn their files over to anyone, especially the state, because the state has no way of keeping them.”
October finally arrived and Tim and I prepared to drive to Atlanta. I still hadn’t gotten a reply from Charlie Dick but hoped that my search of the records at the National Archives would yield some tangible results. We stopped for a couple of nights in Nashville and visited the Country Music Hall of Fame, where there was an exhibit on Patsy Cline. Among personal letters, photos and stage costumes were both the watch she was wearing at the time of her death and the clock from the plane, sad mementos of a life cut tragically short. I stood there for a very long time, staring at the watch, and wishing it could tell me what I wanted to hear. The drive from Nashville to Atlanta was beautiful, a stark contrast to the non-descript building that housed the National Archives a short drive from the city. In order to gain access to the collection, Tim and I were each issued “Researcher Identification” cards and let into a clean, brightly lit room where other researchers worked in silence. After a short wait, a simple cardboard box was rolled out on a library cart. Written on its side in cursive was the name “Patsy Cline.” As I carefully opened the box, the first item I found was a small, rectangular cardboard document envelope, held closed by an elastic band. My hands were honestly shaking as I opened it, curious as to what was inside, and I nearly dropped it when I realized what it contained. Inside, battered but still intact, was Randy’s “Pilot Flight Record and Log Book,” recovered from the wreckage in 1963. After spending far too much time looking over his entries (Randy failed to log the flight from Kansas City to Nashville), I moved on to the bulk of the contents of the box. Most of the materials I already had; the remainder were countless court documents regarding depositions, continuations, testimonies; there were copies of receipts, and handwritten eyewitness accounts. Though the “pathological examination of the pilot” was mentioned in the documents, there was no autopsy report. Truly frustrated for the first time, we returned home.
I wrote a letter to Ellis Nassour, via his publisher, inquiring about the autopsy. I e-mailed Reid Bell, who was at the crash site the day the plane was recovered. But another question had occurred to me: even if Randy had not been tested for CO poisoning back in 1963, would that mean an exhumation would be necessary to prove or disprove my hypothesis? The thought of convincing Randy’s widow, Kathy, that we needed to exhume her dead husband’s remains after fifty years didn’t sound feasible. And would CO still be detectable after fifty years? And did the CAB even test pilot fatalities for CO poisoning back in 1963?
A co-worker, upon learning of my quest, put me in contact with a colleague at another university, believing that her expertise in the field of forensic pathology could help. Dr. Zeibig was more than happy to help, but wrote “I can tell you that there would be no possibility that CO could be evaluated on an exhumation after long buried.”
As for the question of CO testing by the CAB, she put me in touch with the pathology department at the FAA in Oklahoma City. The gentleman there was very helpful but stated that CO testing of pilots “as routine” was not instituted until the late 1970’s.
To date, I have not received responses from Charlie Dick, Reid Bell or Ellis Nassour…maybe they just assume that I’m another crackpot looking for a macabre thrill.
What started as a hunch will apparently remain a hypothesis unless we can locate the engine of the plane and have it tested for cracks that might have allowed for CO to invade the cockpit of Randy’s plane. We do know that a family in Camden has a large portion of the fuselage, a woman in Texas or Oklahoma has one of the wings and that two brothers recently attempted to sell parts of the plane on E-bay.
It’s possible the engine is still out there somewhere.
What would all of this accomplish? For one thing, as I’ve said, it would change the original ruling of “pilot error” to mechanical error. For another, it might just prove that the poor souls on that 1963 flight were gone before the plane even crashed or, at the very least, asleep.
Maybe I’m wrong and maybe it happened just the way the CAB ruled fifty years ago; that Randy flew into bad weather against better judgment. Maybe they were all in a hurry to get home and disregarded the warnings given to them. Maybe, or maybe my hunch deserves a closer look by people in a better position to prove me right and to clear Randy of any wrongdoing.
Hopefully, this will be proven someday.