The 1971 Colorado Aviation Aero Commander 680 crash claimed the life of highly decorated World War II veteran Audie Murphy and five other people on May 28, 1971. The aircraft's passengers were on a business trip from Atlanta, Georgia to Martinsville, Virginia, aboard an Aero Commander 680 Super twin engine aircraft owned and operated by Colorado Aviation Co, Inc. The aircraft crashed into the side of Brushy Mountain, 14 nautical miles northwest of Roanoke, Virginia during conditions of poor visibility.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the crash was caused by the pilot's decision to continue operating under visual flight rules (VFR) into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), combined with his lack of experience in the aircraft type.
On the morning of May 28, 1971, an Aero Commander 680 Super prepared to depart DeKalb–Peachtree Airport in Atlanta. It was operating as a non-scheduled passenger air taxi flight under visual flight rules to its destination of Blue Ridge Airport in Martinsville, 284 nautical miles northeast, with an estimated flight time of 1 hour 46 minutes.
Before takeoff the pilot requested a weather report by phone and decided weather along the route was safe for visual flying. No flight plan was required and none was filed. Air traffic control at Peachtree cleared the fight and the aircraft departed at 09:10 EST. As the flight continued, weather conditions deteriorated, and two hours twenty minutes after take off, at 11:30 several residents of Galax, Virginia (60 miles due west of Martinsville), reported seeing the Aero Commander flying circles in and out of the clouds at approximately 150 feet above ground level (AGL). Shortly afterward the aircraft unsuccessfully attempted to land on a four-lane highway northwest of Galax. After making a pass over the town at near treetop level, the aircraft left the area heading west towards the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The last communication with the aircraft was at 11:49, when the pilot contacted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Flight Service Station at Roanoke's Woodrum Airport asking for a weather report and saying he intended to land there. At this point the aircraft had flown past its destination of Martinsville and was west of and below the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The latest weather report radioed by Roanaoke was "measured ceiling 1,000 feet broken, 2500 feet overcast, visibility 3 miles in light rain and fog, with mountain ridges obscured". The pilot did not indicate he was in any kind of trouble or report the aircraft's current position.
At 12:08 the aircraft impacted the west side of Brushy Mountain at the 2,700-foot level while flying at "high speed level attitude" on a heading of 100 degrees to the Roanoke VORTAC navigation beacon. The collision into the heavily wooded slope and post crash fire destroyed the aircraft, and all six people on board received fatal injuries.
Registered as N601JJ, the aircraft was a fourteen-year-old 680 Super seven-seat light twin, type certified on October 14, 1955, and manufactured in 1957 by Aero Commander. Serial number 680-491-161 was equipped with 340 hp Lycoming GSO-480-B1A6 supercharged engines, turning Hartzell 3-bladed feathering propellers.Maximum takeoff weight was 7,000 lb (3,200 kg) with a total fuel load of 225.5 US gal, giving a 1,480-mile range at a cruise speed of 230 mph. Because of these features the 680 Super is considered a complex multiengine airplane.
The single crewmember was 43-year-old pilot Herman Butler, who held a valid private pilot license with airplane single- and multi-engine land rating, but was not rated to fly under instrument flight rules (IFR). Butler had over 8,000 hours of flight experience, but only 6 hours logged in the newly acquired Aero Commander. He was also the secretary of Colorado Aviation Co, Inc.
The five passengers included Audie Murphy, who was business director of Telestar Leisure Investments. Colorado Aviation Co, Inc. was a subsidiary of Telestar. The other passengers were Jack Littleton, Raymond Prater, Claude Crosby and Kim Dodey.
Friends were waiting at Martinsville, and when the aircraft failed to arrive, they were told the flight had changed destinations to Roanoke. Late that afternoon in Roanoke it became clear the aircraft was missing and a search was initiated. Civil Air Patrol in Danville, Virginia, began searching with help from units in Buckingham, Hillsville, Lynchburg, Martinsville, and Roanoke. The Eastern Air Search and Rescue Center at Robins Air Force Base also launched 31 aircraft, in support of the search. Due to poor weather conditions and the lack of a fight plan, the crash site was not located until May 31. Colonel Hale and Major Slusser of the Virginia Wing of the Civil Air Patrol discovered the accident site approximately 300 feet below the summit of Brushy Mountain at 2:30 in the afternoon. Later that day rescue workers were able to reach the area after hiking up four miles of steep terrain. Three passengers, including Murphy, had been thrown uphill from the wreckage and were identified on site. The remaining three were found within the cabin of the aircraft and were badly burned.
The accident was investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board and centered around the weather at the time of the crash and the pilot's abilities. There was no evidence of any pre-impact malfunction of the aircraft, and in their final report, issued on June 15, 1972, the NTSB determined the following official probable cause for the accident: "[T]he pilot's attempt to continue visual fight into adverse weather conditions at an altitude too low to clear the mountainous terrain. The Board also finds that the pilot attempted to continue flight into instrument weather conditions which were beyond his operational capabilities."
In December 1971 the family of Audie Murphy (his wife and two sons) hired attorney Herbert Hafif and filed a $10 million lawsuit in Los Angeles District Court alleging negligence in the operation and maintenance of the aircraft. The 13 defendants included the estate of pilot Herman Butler, the estates of passengers Claude Crosby and Jack Littleton, Aero Commander Inc, Colorado Aviation Co. Inc, and Telestar, Inc. In December 1975 a jury awarded the Murphy family $2.5 million in damages to be paid by the aircraft's owner, Colorado Aviation Inc. of Denver Colorado.