On March 5, 1963, country music stars Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins were killed in a plane crash near Camden, Tennessee, United States, along with the pilot Randy Hughes. The accident occurred as the three artists were returning home to Nashville, Tennessee, after performing in Kansas City, Missouri.
Shortly after takeoff from a refueling stop, the pilot lost control of the small Piper PA-24 Comanche while flying in low visibility conditions, and subsequently crashed into a wooded area, leaving no survivors.
Investigators concluded that the crash was caused by the non-instrument rated pilot's decision to operate under visual flight rules (VFR) in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).
At approximately 2 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5, 1963, a Piper Comanche departed Fairfax Municipal Airport in Kansas City. It was operating as a non-scheduled passenger cross-country business flight under visual flight rules to its destination of Nashville, 411 nautical miles (761 km; 473 mi) to the southeast. Later that afternoon the aircraft landed at Rogers Municipal Airport in Rogers, Arkansas to refuel and departed 15 minutes afterwards.
Pilot Hughes later made contact with Dyersburg Regional Airport in Dyersburg, Tennessee and landed there at 5:05 p.m., where he requested a weather briefing for the remainder of the flight to Nashville. He was informed by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employee Leroy Neal that local conditions were marginal for VFR flight and weather at the destination airport was below VFR minimums. Hughes then asked if the Dyersburg airport runways were lighted at night in case he had to return and Neal replied that they were. The pilot then informed Neal he would fly east towards the Tennessee River and navigate to Nashville from there, as he was familiar with the terrain in that area. Hughes expressed concern with a 2,049-foot (625 m) high television transmitting tower north of Nashville, then stated that he would attempt the flight and return if the weather conditions worsened.
After refueling, the passengers and pilot reboarded the Piper Comanche. Hughes requested another weather briefing by radio then taxied into position and took off at 6:07 p.m. After takeoff, there was no further radio contact with N7000P. The reported weather at that time was a ceiling of 500 feet (150 m), visibility of 5 miles (8.0 km), temperature of 43 °F (6 °C; 279 K), gusty and turbulent wind from the east at 20 miles per hour (17 kn) and cloudy. Several minutes later an aviation-qualified witness, approximately 4 miles (6.4 km) west of Camden, heard a low-flying aircraft on a northerly course. The engine noise increased and seconds later a white light appeared from the overcast, descending in a 45 degree angle.
At 6:29 p.m., the aircraft crashed into a wooded swampy area 1 mile (1.6 km) north of Highway 70 and 5 miles (8.0 km) west of Camden. The impact completely destroyed the aircraft and all four occupants aboard were killed. The witness described hearing a dull-sounding crash, followed by complete silence.
Registered as N7000P, the aircraft was a three year old PA-24-250 Comanche four seat, light single-engine manufactured in 1960 by Piper Aircraft. Serial Number 24-2144 was equipped with a Lycoming 0-540-A1D5 250 hp (190 kW) normally aspirated engine, turning a constant-speed propeller. The Comanche's maximum takeoff weight was 2,800 lb (1,300 kg) with a total fuel load of 60 US gallons (230 L) giving a range of 600 nm at 75% power including a 45-minute reserve. The aircraft had passed its last FAA inspection on 19 April 1962.
The owner and pilot of the aircraft, Ramsey (Randy) Dorris Hughes, 34, was also Patsy Cline’s manager and the son-in-law of Cowboy Copas. Hughes held a valid private pilot licence with an airplane single engine land rating, but was not rated to fly under instrument flight rules (IFR). Hughes had taken possession of the plane in 1962, less than a year before the crash, and was an inexperienced pilot with a total flight time of 160:10 hours including 44:25 logged in the Piper Comanche.
After the witness notified the Tennessee Highway Patrol, two law enforcement officers performed a preliminary search of the area around 7 p.m., but they found nothing. By 11:30 p.m., a search party was organized consisting of the Highway Patrol, Civil Defense and local officers who searched the area throughout the night. At 6:10 a.m. on March 6, the wreckage was discovered. A three-foot hole indicated the area of initial impact and debris was scattered over an area 166 feet (51 m) long and 130 feet (40 m) wide.
During the FAA investigation, it was found the aircraft’s propeller contacted a tree 30 feet (9.1 m) above the ground while the aircraft was in a 26-degree nose-down attitude. The right wing then collided with another tree 32 feet (9.8 m) to the right, causing the plane to become inverted. The downward angle increased to 45 degrees and the Comanche hit the ground at an estimated speed of 175 miles per hour (282 km/h), about 62 feet (19 m) from the initial contact.
Inspection of the airframe and engine disclosed that the aircraft was intact and the engine was developing substantial power before impacting the trees. Investigators found no evidence of engine or system failure or malfunction of the aircraft prior to the crash. It was determined the plane was slightly over maximum gross weight when it departed Dyersburg Regional Airport, but this fact had no bearing on the crash. An autopsy of the pilot discovered no physical or medical concerns that could have been a factor in the accident.
Investigators believe that Hughes entered an area of deteriorating weather with low visibility and lost his visual reference with the ground. This induced spatial disorientation and eventually led to a graveyard spiral with the aircraft entering into a right hand diving turn, with a nose-down attitude of 25 degrees. When the aircraft cleared the clouds, Hughes attempted to arrest the high descent rate by pulling the nose up and applying full power but it was too late. The FAA investigators later found evidence that the propeller was at maximum rpm during impact.
The FAA's final conclusion was the non-instrument-rated pilot's attempted visual flight in adverse weather conditions, resulting in disorientation and subsequent loss of control.