Archived Story

60th anniversary of tragic Blackwood plane crash nears

Published 9:40am Monday, March 31, 2014

As their popularity grew and their concert schedule became more demanding, the group decided to begin utilizing an airplane for their travel needs, reasoning that travel by air would be much more convenient and less fatiguing than riding in large automobiles that gospel groups typically used as their means of transportation. From 1952 until 1954, the group owned a number of different airplanes before purchasing a 10-passenger, twin-engine Beechcraft Model 18. R.W. Blackwood piloted the aircraft while Lyles served as co-pilot and navigator.

James Blackwood would later remember the flight from their last performance in Gulfport, Miss. to Clanton as a beautiful experience: “Cruising at 6,000 feet, the motors of our plane were humming a soothing, muted lullaby. Wisps of fleecy, white clouds were here and there, around us.”

Arriving in Clanton at noon, Blackwood recalled being greeted by hundreds of their Chilton County fans, many of whom had been awaiting their arrival since early morning. After an hour of shaking hands, signing autographs and greeting admirers, the group was ushered into the large hangar, where the concert was to be held.

Although the formal program was not scheduled to begin until 7 p.m., the group gave a short, informal performance during a luncheon hosted by the Lions Club, sponsors of the evening concert.

In 1954, the Clanton Airport consisted of two sod runways, one oriented in an east-west direction with the second northwest to southeast. Neither runway was equipped with lights for night takeoffs or landings.

Since the Blackwood Brothers Quartet planned to return to Memphis immediately following the concert, a night takeoff on the unlighted runway would be required. Typically, automobiles would be parked along the sides of the runway and the headlights used to illuminate the takeoff area.

At about 6:15 p.m., 45 minutes before their concert was scheduled to begin, R.W. Blackwood decided that he and co-pilot Lyles would make a test flight to “get the lay of the field” so that he would have no trouble taking off later that evening.

On the spur of the moment, Blackwood and Lyles were joined on the flight by Johnny Ogburn, Jr., the 20-year-old son and namesake of the founder of the Chilton County Peach Festival. Following graduation from high school, Ogburn had joined the United States Air Force and served as an Airman Second Class at Kesseler Field at Biloxi, Miss. Married to the former Peggy Joyce Noah, the couple had celebrated their first anniversary the previous week.

A crowd had assembled to watch the takeoff. Inside the airplane, Blackwood and Lyles could be seen in the pilot compartment while young Ogburn waved as he peered through a window in the passenger cabin.

Shortly, the engines roared to life, and the airplane began to taxi to the end of the runway for takeoff. Because the wind had shifted since the time of their arrival, the takeoff and subsequent landing would be from the opposite direction from that used during their earlier arrival. This required the airplane to overfly a small hill during the landing approach. After clearing the hill, it would be necessary for the pilot to reduce speed and lose altitude quickly enough to touch down and stop on the short grass runway.

Dusk had fallen as the twin-engine Beechcraft began its takeoff. James Blackwood would later write that, “Twilight is for being with friends and family, for rest, for songs and for courting, but not the time for landing a large airplane on short and tricky landing strips.”

After circling the field several times, the spectators watched intently as R.W. Blackwood maneuvered the big airplane into the landing pattern. After clearing the small hill at the end of the runway, the pilot lowered the nose of the airplane forcefully, but the machine gathered speed and was moving too fast to land.

Realizing that insufficient runway remained, Blackwood pushed the throttles forward, retracted the landing gear and began a climb to enter the landing pattern for a second attempt. The assembled crowd, not understanding the drama that was unfolding before them, remained in a holiday mood, cheering and waving as the airplane climbed overhead.

Approaching the runway on the second attempt to land, James Blackwood observed the airplane clear the hill as the pilot began a “side-slip” maneuver to reduce speed and lose altitude rapidly. Touching down, the Beechcraft bounced back into the air. As before, R.W. Blackwood applied power to initiate a go-around maneuver to climb back into the air for another attempt to land.

Almost immediately, the crowd began to sense that something was terribly wrong as the nose of the big airplane continued to rise into an almost vertical climb. Watching in horror, James Blackwood thought it was as though a giant, invisible hand was pulling a toy airplane up on a string. Then, as if in slow motion, the airplane seemed to hang suspended for a moment, neither climbing nor falling, before it appeared to gracefully turn and dive viciously into the ground.

As a young man, Clanton Mayor Billy Joe Driver was sitting on the last row of bleachers inside the hangar waiting for the Blackwood Brothers Quartet performance to begin.

“From my seat, I could see the airplane as it approached for landing,” Driver recalled. “Although I couldn’t say why, it just didn’t look right to me.

“I could see the airplane as it began to climb. It appeared to go straight up into the air. It looked like it was going to do a loop maneuver, but it nosed down and descended into the ground. At first, I thought it was some kind of prank, but all of a sudden people were running out of the hangar onto the landing field. We just couldn’t believe what had happened. It didn’t seem real.”

According to the Union-Banner newspaper, within seconds of the accident, “all was bedlam on the airport.” Because of the traffic congestion associated with the Peach Festival, the fire department and ambulances had a difficult time responding to the accident.

The three occupants of the aircraft, R.W. Blackwood, James W. (Bill) Lyles and John Archie Ogburn Jr. were fatally injured.

Later in the evening, at the request of Erskin Popwell and Harold Foshee, more than 1,000 people gathered at the Clanton Airport. The assembled group voted that all the money collected from the sale of tickets to the Blackwood Brothers concert would be turned over to the families of the victims of the accident. However, anyone who was not satisfied could get their money back. No one stepped forward to request a refund.

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