July 19, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the tragedy of Piedmont Flight 22 over Hendersonville.
Disasters in the air
Identified by geologists as being among the oldest ranges on the planet, the Blue Ridge Mountains proffer breathtaking backdrops. Whitewater plunges over mountain cliffs and chasms. Creeks and branches crisscross the vales between their time-eroded slopes. Ice-cold springs course beneath their foundations of granite. And hikers and birders find respite in their wooded, wild-flowered trails.
Nevertheless, these ridges command respect from those venturing upon them — and through their perilous airspace.
Over the years, tragedies have tarnished the splendor of Henderson County’s otherwise idyllic milieu. Catastrophic weather conditions including fog and downdrafts have brought down aircraft. Added to that, pilots’ unfamiliarity with the defiant terrain and the sheer height of the ridges, have resulted in disaster. Pockmarked with crash sites, Henderson County’s mountains have witnessed their share of air disasters.
This July marks the 50th anniversary of the most catastrophic air disaster in North Carolina’s history. The incident involved the collision of a private airliner and a commercial airliner above the Dana area on Wednesday, July 19, 1967.
Piedmont Flight 22, a Boeing 727 jetliner carrying 74 passengers and a crew of five, departed from Asheville Regional Airport’s Runway 16 at 11:58 a.m. En route from Atlanta to Roanoke, the itinerary included a stop at Asheville and a scheduled termination at Washington, D.C.
As it climbed above Hendersonville, a Cessna 310 charter flight, which had originated in Springfield, Mo., tore into the jet’s right underbelly near its front landing gear. The impact and explosion welded the Cessna into the jetliner’s underbelly.
The accident claimed the lives of all 82 people aboard the two crafts.
Before the impact, the Cessna had been traveling at 205 miles per hour and the jetliner was climbing at a ground speed of about 275 miles per hour.
Local resident Charles Geffrey “Geff” Hoots recalled, “I was playing alone in the yard, underneath my grandfather’s parked aluminum boat, when the two planes popped loudly in the sky above me. Just seconds later I heard a booming explosion, and the ground under my feet shook so strong that I fell down on my face.”
The red Cessna, piloted by John David “Dave” Addison (1919–1967) of Lebanon, Mo., had taken off from Charlotte and was inbound to the Asheville airport. Some sources faulted Addison, a pilot of 22 years and a World War II U.S. Army private, for not having radioed the tower at Asheville for landing clearance.
Other sources blamed a confusing transmission message by the ATC and minimal control procedures utilized by the FAA in its handling of the Cessna. The Asheville tower did not have radar in those days but relied on VHF Omni-directional Range (VOR) employing radio signals. Addison’s deviation from his IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) clearance — approximately nine miles south and east of the glide pattern into Asheville — put him in a flight path allocated to the 727.
According to the FAA, Addison’s two-engine Cessna swept out of the pallor and flew directly into the 727. Weather conditions indicated a “2,500-foot ceiling with broken cloud cover and four miles of visibility in hazy conditions.”
Addison’s passengers were Ralph Reynolds (1919–1967), vice-president of Lanseair, Inc. (an aviation insurance and development company) and owner of the craft; and Robert Eugene Anderson (1930–1967) — both of Springfield, Mo.
The Manhattan Pacemaker
Flight 22, the first jet in Piedmont’s fleet, was nicknamed the “Manhattan Pacemaker.” The craft was built in Seattle and had been leased by Iran National Airlines as part of the fleet of the Shah before Piedmont bought the jet.
Because fog had delayed flights that morning, Flight 22 was running 30 minutes behind schedule.
Passengers on Flight 22 included vacationing families and children returning home from camps. Thirty-six food brokers from around the country also counted among the passengers. The brokers were headed to a Stokely-Van Camp convention in West Virginia.
Additional passengers were Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs/Secretary-Designate of the U.S. Navy John T. McNaughton (1921–1967) and his wife and son. Still others were Georgiana (“Jeorgina”) Lopez Basurto (1945–1967), Grant E. Bubb (1905–1967) and Herbert Kiessling (1890–1967), each of Hendersonville. Basurto’s boyfriend, Kirby P. Rector (1943–1967) of Clyde, N.C., was also onboard.
Officials believed the pilot of the commercial jet, Capt. Raymond Frank Schulte (1918–1967) of Norfolk, Va., had attempted to avoid the collision. Losing power quickly after the impact, Schulte made a right turn in what seemed to have been a maneuver to make it to nearby Interstate 26. Theoretically, Schulte believed an emergency landing on the freeway might have been possible.
Thomas Calvin Conrad (1936–1967) was first officer on the flight and Lawrence Cary Wilson (1930–1967) was second officer.
Investigations suggested that the Cessna’s pilot had likely been distracted while making dial changes to his radio settings.
Witnesses on the ground told news reporters that the smaller craft pulled up sharply and then exploded upon impact. The 727 briefly continued its progress forward at an altitude of 6,132 feet before suddenly nosing over, exploding into flames and breaking into two sections.
Passengers, luggage and fuselage debris rained from the sky, and one human corpse crashed through the roof of a home. The body of a boy dangled from the branches of a tree. Luggage, clothing and cocktail napkins drifted from above, snagging in treetops.
The calamity transpired above the airspace of the Holiday Inn motel and Martin Levine’s Camp Pinewood (at one time called Orr’s Camp). At the time of the collision, 145 children between the ages of 6 and 14 and the counselors took cover indoors and under canoes as wreckage and bodies plummeted to the ground.
A profusion of the debris landed in and around the camp’s dumpsite. Henderson County sheriff James F. Kilpatrick (1920–1976) dispatched every available piece of rescue equipment and each off-duty and reserve officer to the scene. The State Highway Patrol ordered its entire area force to report for duty.
Aviation investigators reassembled sections of the jet’s fuselage in a field, which is now the site of McDonald’s on Four Seasons Boulevard. In those days, before fast-food restaurants, a muddle of signs and the Blue Ridge Mall cluttered the scenery, the area enfolding the crash site was mostly farms and rural greenways. The Blue Ridge Academy for Boys stood on the present site of the mall.
In the aftermath of the tragedy — the first major accident investigated by the newly formed National Transportation Safety Board — officials worked to keep curiosity seekers and the media from the crash site as investigations proceeded. Hendersonville residents described the general atmosphere as solemn — for many days — as they attempted to persevere with their daily lives. Victims’ families filed 16 lawsuits seeking nearly $11 million in damages against Piedmont, Lanseair and others.
Paul D. Houle of Chesnee, S.C., author of “The Crash of Piedmont Airlines Flight 22,” spearheaded efforts to erect a Flight 22 memorial. Mounted on a 12½-ton boulder, the bronze plaque documents the names of the victims. Houle is a former traffic-accident investigator with the United States Army.
Officials dedicated the monument in July 2004 on the 37th anniversary of the crash. The monument to the eighty-two victims stands one-quarter mile from the crash site at the intersection of Jack Street, Orr’s Camp Road and Mitchelle Drive off Four Seasons Boulevard.