The Last Light In Patsy Cline’s Life

by Dave Weiman
Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2020 issue

Any time I hear about an aircraft accident which is attributed to “pilot error,” I cringe and try to put myself in the pilot’s seat. Was it a matter of a lack of experience or proficiency, or weather-related, and how could the accident been prevented?

We have all been there… We want to fly when we planned to fly. We have a schedule to keep. Friends or family members are expecting us to takeoff at a particular time and don’t understand or appreciate all of the factors involved in flying, and we don’t want to disappoint them. The hotel we’ve been staying at is now booked, and we want to get home. The list goes on.

Recently, I had the opportunity to fly into Sugar Ridge Airport (WS62) – a private airport in Verona, Wisconsin, owned by retired Dane County Sheriff Deputy Tom Kretschman. The grass runway (9/27) might only be 1600 feet in length, but the airport has many other features which pilots usually only see at large metropolitan airports, such as runway markers and lights, a 260 ft. long hangar, a pilot lounge, top security, and a rotating beacon. The rotating beacon once lit up Dyersburg Army Air Base near Halls, Tennessee. The base was active during World War II as the only inland training airfield for the B-17 Flying Fortress east of the Mississippi. It closed on November 30, 1945, then put into civilian use and renamed Dyersburg Regional Airport (KDYR).

The rotating beacon is said to be the last light country western star, Patsy Cline, saw on March 5, 1963, before the 1960 PA-24-250 Comanche she was a passenger in took off from Dyersburg and crashed killing all four persons onboard.

The owner and pilot of the aircraft, Ramsey (Randy) Hughes, 34, was also Patsy Cline’s manager and the son-in-law of Cowboy Copas, who was also onboard, as was Hawkshaw Hawkins. The aircraft crashed near Camden, Tenn., en route to Nashville, following a performance in Kansas City, Kansas, after dark in rain and low ceilings. Hughes was not instrument rated and likely experienced spatial disorientation.

Hughes took off from Kansas City and first landed to refuel at Rogers Municipal Airport in Rogers, Arkansas, then flew on to Dyersburg, landing at 5:05 p.m., at which time he received a weather briefing for the remainder of the flight to Nashville. The weather at Dyersburg was marginal VFR, and in Nashville was below VFR minimums. Hughes apparently told the briefer that he would fly east towards the Tennessee River and navigate to Nashville from there, and if weather conditions worsened, he would return to Dyersburg.

Patsy Cline was one of the first big female stars in country music, with a string of classic hits, including “Walkin After Midnight” and “Crazy.”

Musicians do a lot of traveling and often have back-to-back engagements, which requires that they fly late at night following a performance and sometimes in adverse weather conditions. Depending on the performer’s budget, the pilots may be low time, and the aircraft might not be that well equipped.

The list of other performers who have died in airplane accidents includes Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Jiles Perry “J. P.” Richardson Jr., known as “The Big Bopper” (1959); Jim Reeves (1964); Otis Redding (1967); Jim Croce (1973); Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines of the band “Lynyrd Skynyrd (1977);” Ricky Nelson (1985); Stevie Ray Vaughan (1990); eight members of Reba McEntire’s band (1991); John Denver on a recreational flight (1997); and most recently, Troy Gentry of “Montgomery Gentry” (2017).

Rock-n-roll legend, Buddy Holly, was killed on February 3, 1959, when the Beechcraft Bonanza he was a passenger in crashed into a cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa, en route to another performance in Moorhead, Minn. Also killed was Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson, Jr., and the pilot, Roger Peterson. Hollys bass player, Waylon Jennings, was not onboard and instead gave his seat to Richardson, and Jennings rode in the band bus. The accident later became known as “The Day the Music Died,” when singer-songwriter Don McLean made reference to it in his 1971 song, “American Pie.”

Country western performer, Jim Reeves, was killed on July 31, 1964, during a rainstorm outside of Nashville, while flying back from Batesville, Arkansas, having completed a real estate transaction. Reeves was flying the plane. His business partner and manager, Dean Manuel, also died in the accident.

Not far from Sugar Ridge Airport, soul legend Otis Redding was killed on December 10, 1967, when his 1962 Beechcraft H18 crashed into Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin, on a three-mile final to Runway 36 at Truax Field (now Dane County Regional Airport). The flight originated from Cleveland, Ohio, where Redding had just completed three concerts in two nights.

Weather conditions at the time of the accident included heavy fog and rain. The pilot, Richard Fraser, Redding, and all but one member of his band, “The Bar-Kays,” were killed including Phalon Jones, Carl Cunningham, Jimmy King, and Ronnie Caldwell. Also killed was their valet, Matthew Kelly. Trumpet player Ben Cauley, who was asleep at the time, survived. Cauley died September 21, 2015 at the age of 67. Several weeks after Redding was killed, the song “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” written by Redding and guitarist Steve Cropper, became the first posthumous single to top the charts in the U.S.

Jim Croce and four others were killed on September 20, 1973, following a concert at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, when their chartered Beechcraft E18S crashed en route to Sherman, Texas, to perform at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. The other victims in the accident were Croce’s second guitarist, Maury Meuhleisen; road manager Morgan Tell; comedian George Stevens; a booking agent; and the pilot.

Croce’s hits included “Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”

The band “Lynyrd Skynyrd,” one of the most influential southern rock bands of all time, perished on October 20, 1977, when their chartered aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed in Gillsburg, Miss., near the end of a flight from Greenville, S.C., to Baton Rouge, La. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist/vocalist Steve Gaines, and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines, were killed, along with assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and copilot William Gray.

And who would ever forget when Ricky Nelson, his girlfriend and several members of his band were killed on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1985. Nelson’s DC-3 crash-landed northeast of Dallas, Texas in De Kalb, after taking off from Guntersville, Ala., apparently caused by a malfunctioning heater in the cabin of the aircraft.

Also, near Sugar Ridge Airport, 76 miles away at Alpine Valley Theater in southeast Wisconsin, top blues guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and four others were killed on August 27, 1990 in a helicopter flight to Chicago Midway Airport, following an outdoor concert that also featured Eric Clapton. Clapton was not onboard the helicopter.

In the early morning hours of March 16, 1991, a jet carrying eight members of Reba McEntire’s band, crashed into Otay Mountain near San Diego, Calif., late at night, following a show. The accident was attributed to poor visibility when the pilot chose to depart VFR. McEntire was to fly out the next day and join up with her band in Indiana for their next engagement.

Pilot, aircraft owner and an occasional visitor to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, John Denver, was killed on October 12, 1997, when his experimental Adrian Davis Long-EZ crashed into Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, Calif., after running out of fuel.

Most recently, Troy Gentry of the country duo “Montgomery Gentry,” was killed on September 8, 2017, in a helicopter accident just hours before a scheduled Montgomery Gentry concert in Medford, N.J.

In memory of Patsy Cline, Tom Kretschman has been collecting a number of memorabilia to show guests. He admits that he was never a big Patsy Cline fan before she died, but his rotating beacon has changed all of that.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Actress Jessica Lange portrayed Patsy Cline in the 1985 motion picture “Sweet Dreams.” A documentary entitled “The Patsy Cline Story” was released in 2011.

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