FINAL FLIGHT -- JIM REEVES

by Fred J. Bunyan

 

 

It was late afternoon on July 31,1964 I was at Port Columbus Airport, Columbus, Ohio preparing to demonstrate an airplane to a prospective purchaser when a lineboy came up and advised that I had an urgent long distance phone call. Securing the aircraft engine and making apologies to my client, I returned to the office to answer the telephone.

 

It was from my wife at home in Nashville, Tennessee, advising that my office there had called and they thought Jim Reeves'  aircraft was down. That was all the information she had...just that the plane's image had been lost on radar.

 

I immediately called Phil Frasier, a college student, who answered our telephone after his school hours. Phil told me that the Approach Control unit of the Nash­ville Tower had called him earlier to advise that they were working one of our Beechcraft Debonairs, and it had disappeared from their scope. They presumed it was down since they could not regain radio contact. Phil further advised me that there was a nest of thunderstorms just south of the airport at the time radar contact was lost. He also added that FAA and the Tennessee Highway Patrol had already launched a search for the aircraft and its occupants.

 

I borrowed an automobile from my prospect and drove across the Port Columbus air­port to the Federal Aviation Administration Flight Service Station (this arm of our government maintains enroute radio communications with aircraft and passes weather information on to them). They called the Nashville station for me. One of the FAA inspectors, Mr. John Hornaday happened to be in the office. He stated that the aircraft had not been located. He further advised that some military helicopters with strong searchlights (since it was close to darkness) were being dispatched from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, some fifty miles away to continue the search after dark.

 

I spent most of the night at the Columbus Flight Service Station monitoring the search from there. All through the night I had kept in touch with Phil at the Nashville office. Roughly, by 3:30 AM there had been no progress. At that time I decided to fly back to Nashville. The Beechcraft Musketeer I was flying had a speed of only 120 MPH. It would take approximately two hours and forty-five minutes to cover the approximate 340 miles home to Nashville.

 

On my flight back, my thoughts drifted to the past remembering my association with Jim. I first met him when I approached him on the idea of buying an aircraft. This led to a demonstration in the Beechcraft Debonair. Over the next few days, Jim and I agreed that the best way for him to evaluate his needs for the aircraft was for him to rent the airplane to cover some of his normal trips. He did this over a period of a few months. At the same time he was working on an instrument rating. This would entitle him to fly when the weather would not permit a pilot to fly under visual flight rules. He was an above average student, however his busy schedule did not permit him to fly regularly. If a couple of weeks would elapse between flights, he would insist on a checkout in the aircraft prior to leaving on a cross-country trip. He strived to be a good pilot.

 

I remember on one occasion Jim and his wife Mary flew to Texas for a few days. Upon their return to Nashville there were several thunderstorms in the area. He landed in Nashville just ahead of one. John Roberts, President of Southeastern Beechcraft, my employer at the time, and I had line personnel pull the aircraft into the hangar to escape the downpour. We had to wait 15 or 20 minutes before we could walk to the office because of the intense rain.

 

On another occasion I remember when Jim returned from another trip to Texas. This time the weather was very good, and he had apparently, not only had a very good flight but a successful business trip aswell. I helped him unload his luggage from the aircraft. He insisted that I look at several paintings he had purchased for his home and office. He seemed to have excellent taste. On another occasion,  Jim gave an autographed copy of one of his popular record albums to my three young daughters. Needless to say, it has been played very frequently. As I neared Nashville about fifty miles out, I tuned to the Unicom frequency of 123.0 .This was the frequency the search parties were using. I hoped it would be quiet, but much to my dismay I could hear the chatter of the many search planes looking for the downed aircraft.

 

Upon landing I immediately checked with Phil Frasier, Frank Knapp, the airport manager and a veteran pilot, the Highway Patrol and the Nashville Police as well as the local FAA and Civil Air Patrol all of whom had been aiding in the search. Of course, by this time the prospects of any survivors left us all feeling hopeless. The search was continued throughout Saturday to no avail.  Many, many people participated in this rescue mission. Not only pilots, FAA personnel, Civil Air Patrol, the Police Department, but also the ground search was conducted by many individuals and groups. They had the hardest job walking up and down hills and through a lot of bushes, particularly near the Rador Lake area.

 

By nightfall there had been no results. Saturday evening we had a meeting on how to conduct the search the following day. Early Sunday morning, Bill Larson, who was a friend of Jim's and is now an Eastern Airlines pilot and I drove over the suspected area of the crash. We met several parties by daylight. However there were no results. By nine o'clock, John Hornaday, the FAA inspector and I took off in one of our airplanes and had the Nashville Approach Control vector us on radar to the spot where Jim's airplane disappeared from the scope. We endeavored to simulate what would happen to an inexperienced pilot who might venture into a thunderstorm unexpectedly...how long he could control the aircraft and into what area he might go.

 

We marked our spot on maps and returned to the office. Upon advising the various officials of our findings, we were informed that ground search parties had already checked that particular area without results. By this time, countless people were participating in the search. Pilots were flying into the Nashville area from over 200 to 300 miles to aid the ground search parties.

 

Many people had participated, most of them with only three or four hours of sleep since the first word was heard. A member of the Highway Patrol and a heli­copter pilot, Captain Clark, probably spent more hours in the air than any other pilot during the search. Phil Frasier, who had stayed at the office throughout the ordeal, was busy taking phone calls and advising interested parties particularly the news media including national television, of the search progress.

 

We had a discussion trying to formulate another plan of action. By this time we were receiving reports that the airplane had been sighted as far away as 200 miles. Everything pointed to it being down in the area first reported.0ur thoughts were finalized to send a fresh ground search party to this area.

 

About that time our meeting was interrupted by a phone call from Frank Knapp that the wreckage had been located with no survivors. As we suspected, the accident had occurred in the area first reported. It was a very small wooded area with a high power line on the north side and a smattering of houses on the other. A ground witness had pinpointed this location from the start However, the origi­nal ground search party just peered into the wooded area without actually going into the woods to check. The wreckage could not be located from the air since once the aircraft dropped through the tree branches they sprang right back in shape hiding the aircraft. A lone ground searcher had decided to recheck the area and found the wreckage.

 

What caused the accident? As best as we can determine, Jim was running late for a building dedication (as I recall). When the the radar operator wanted to vector him around the thunderstorms (a routing that would take a few minutes longer), Jim being in a hurry thought he could go-around the thunderstorms in an­other direction which would get him on the ground quicker. He apparently ran into another thunderstorm (several in the erect) and lost control of the aircraft.

 

In addition to Mr. Bunyan's story:

 

On the day before the accident, Jim and his manager and pianist, Dean Manuel, flew a rented plane to Batesville, Arkansas. The plane was a single engined Beechcraft Debonair, seating capacity four persons .Dean was born in Batesville. They discussed a property deal spent the night there and headed back to Nashville, to it's airport Berry Field. Before they left, Jim asked for the weather report for their flight path. They approached Nashville a few minutes before five o'clock. There were thunderstorms in that area. Marty Robbins who lives in Brentwood, a suburb of Nashville. He was washing his hair when it began to rain heavily. As a joke, he. ran outside to rinse off his hair-and then he heard what sounded like a crash. He went inside the house and told his wife, Marizona, "Somebody' s been killed, out there". At that time the could not have guessed that the” somebody" was his good friend Jim Reeves, three weeks before Jim's forty-first Birthday. The site of the accident was located near Baxter Avenue in Brentwood, 16 miles from Berry Field.

 

Meanwhile, Jim's wife, the former Mary White, was waiting at home. She had not heard from Jim since he left on the trip and she became alarmed. Phone calls to Batesville established the fact that Jim and Manuel had taken off by plane for Nashville. But she couldn't do much than wait hopefully.

 

When the news reached Jim’s friends, they joined the search. Eddy Arnold, who lives in Brentwood became one of the searchers using a jeep. Chet Atkins, Nashville's RCA Victor chief and a buddy of Jim to also joined the search. Carl Smith, who owns a ranch, brought riding horses to the area to penetrate the close shrubbery.

 

Disc jockeys, record company executives, radio and TV personnel all joined the search. Bob Newton, of the Davidson County Defense recue team, found the wreckage. Jim's body had been thrown thirty feet from the impact point while Dean Manuel's body was still in the plane. Positive identification was made by Eddy Arnold and Miss Joyce Gray (the later Mrs Leo Jackson),Jim's secretary’ Jim's wife remained in seclusion in their Westchester Drive home in Madison, surrounded by relatives and family friends.

 

On the following Monday, CAB probers found Jim's ring worth $5000,in the wreckage. The wreckage was hauled to a hangar at Berry Field for a probe by Civil Aeronautics Board to determine what caused the accident.

 

Country music friends of Jim Reeves and Dean Manuel crowded a simple joint service for them at Philips-Robinson Funeral Home where Eddy Arnold, Chet Atkins, Red Foley, Skeeter Davis were among the five hundred attending. Rev. Joe Hale paid tribute to the humility of the two entertainers and said Jim Reeves earned the right to be called a gentleman-GENTLEMAN JIM-in the true sense of the word". He also reminded the congregation of a plaque hanging in Jim's office, which reads" Be proud of yourself, but remember, there is no indispensable man". "Much was given to these men", said the Reverend, "Music is the universal language ,and they spoke to millions. They walked quietly in the world leaving a path of light".

 

Then Jim's body was flown in a National Guard plane to his hometown of Carthage, Texas, for a second service. This was followed by burial in a local cemetery and his grave lies near a small church besides towering oaks.

 

After Mary Reeves bought a piece of land alongside US Highway 79,3 miles north of Carthage, Jims body was re-buried and a JIM REEVES MEMORIAL was created. A life-like statue was erected and a park was created. A guitar-shaped footpath leads from the entrance to the statue. On the statue there is a text:

 

"IF I , A LOWLY SINGER , DRY ONE TEAR OR SOOTHE ONE HUMBLE HUMAN HEART IN PAIN , THEN MY HOMELY VERSE TO GOD IS DEAR AND NOT ONE STANZA HAS BEEN SUNG IN VAIN".

 

Dean Manuel lies buried at the Springhill Cemetery in Madison, Deans complete name is DOCKIE DEAN MANUEL. He was 30 years old when he died.

 

For the family of Dean Manuel a benefit concert was held. Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, Skeeter Davis and many other artists sang at the concert.

 

It was not necessary to have one for Jim's family, Jim left Mary well provided for.

 

In 1963 Patsy Cline, Hawshawk Hawkins, Cowboy Copas and Randy Hughes, the manager of Miss Kathy Copas, got killed by an airplane accident too. Randy Hughes and Jim learned how to fly from the same instructor at the same period.