The Crash of Piedmont Flight 22

by Mark Shepherd

Minutes before noon on July 19, 1967, a tragedy would begin to unfold some 6,000 feet above what is now the intersection of Hwy 64 and I-26 in Henderson County.  The result left 82 people dead and our small community, shaken to its core, rising to meet the needs of both victims and survivors.2,6,7

Piedmont Flight 22 – a Boeing 727 carrying 74 passengers and 5 crewmembers – took off from Asheville Airport at 11:58 en route to Roanoke, VA, on the second of a four-leg journey from Atlanta to Washington, DC.2,4,6   The 727 was the first jetliner in the Piedmont Airlines fleet, nicknamed the “Manhattan Pacer”. 6  Simultaneously, a Cessna 310 – a six-seat, twin-engined private aircraft with tail number N3121S and three people aboard – was approaching the airport from the south.7  The two aircraft were both operating under instrument flight rules (IFR), and were in radio contact with the Asheville control tower, though on different frequencies. 6,7

Piedmont Flight 22 was in the direct flight path of Cessna N3121S, possibly due to confusion with air traffic control.6  The jetliner’s flight crew may have become distracted by a smoldering cigarette in the cockpit for 35 seconds during the initial ascent and left turn, and didn’t see the approaching Cessna.6  The Cessna slammed into the left side of the 727 just aft of the cockpit at 12:01:18, at an altitude of 6,132 feet, and disintegrated.2,6,7  The collision ripped a hole forward of the left wing of the 727, “showering debris like confetti” over the area.2, 3  Accounts then differ on how the 727 fell.  Some stated that it circled, trying to regain stability; others reported a smooth fall, revolving to the ground; still others indicated a banking turn from right to left.2,3  What is agreed is that the plane eventually flipped, landing upside-down, pointing in a northerly direction, and exploding on impact in a wooded area between I-26 and Camp Pinewood.2,3,7   Debris was scattered all way back towards the Balfour area. 2

First Responders

Dozens of people in Henderson County had observed the Piedmont flight take off, since jetliners were very new to Western North Carolina at the time.2,6   As a result they watched tragedy unfold; hundreds more looked up when they heard the midair collision.   A giant plume of smoke rose from the crash site as the county’s Firefighters, Law Enforcement Officers, and Rescue Squad personnel rushed to the scene.1,2,3  Grady Walker of the Henderson County Rescue Squad (HCRS) lived off Orr’s Camp Road near Camp Pinewood, and witnessed the collision.  He ran to the Camp, directing campers to get away from the crash and take cover as secondary explosions erupted.  His quick action, along with that of several counselors at the camp, was credited with shielding the young campers from danger.3 Thomas Conner, another Rescue Squad Volunteer, was about half a mile away in his yard when his son said “Daddy, look, those planes are going to crash.”  Conner also rushed to the scene.  He would latter equate what he saw to the horrors he had witnessed in the Pacific during World War II.3,5

A joint effort of the Hendersonville, Fletcher, Blue Ridge, Saluda, Etowah Horseshoe, Edneyville, Valley Hill, Mountain Home, and Green River Fire Departments would extinguish the inferno within 30 minutes of the crash. 1,5 Rescue Squad members began the grim task of searching the dense smoke-filled woods for survivors, but it quickly became apparent that there was none.  The Rescue Squad’s experience with Civil Defense Training made it the logical choice to take the lead in the recovery effort.5  This included setting up a command post and a Red Cross canteen at Camp Pinewood, and sending out a call though the NC Association of Rescue Squads for men and equipment.  Over 400 Rescue Squad Volunteers from North and South Carolina responded, some from as far away as Belton, SC and Rowan County, NC.5 Once on scene, they searched the wreckage for passengers’ remains, which they tagged and covered with white sheets.1,5  The next task was to carry the deceased to awaiting ambulances and hearses to be transported to a temporary morgue set up at the North Carolina National Guard Armory.  There a team of forensic experts from the FBI began the work of victim identification with the assistance of local veterans; area radio stations called for additional help from the public.1,4,5  The rescue workers – almost all volunteers – worked around the clock for five days to clear the scene.5  Hendersonville Times-News Editor Mead Parce recalled, “A priest and ministers walked among the dead.  In two hours after the crash rescue workers had lived a week”.1

It was through the first responders’ sacrifice and dedication to service that Henderson County was able to recover.  Federal officials gave high praise to the responding Fire and Law Enforcement departments and the Rescue Squad for their organization and professionalism.  HCRS would receive commendations from the US Senate, Piedmont Airlines, the US Department of Transportation and the Governor for the Volunteers’ bravery during the disaster.

Conclusion

This was the first major aviation accident investigated by the newly-formed National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).4,6,7  Over the next few weeks the Boeing 727 jetliner was reconstructed in a field that is now occupied by a McDonalds restaurant off Hwy 64.5  The NTSB interviewed hundreds of citizens who witnessed the crash.1 The initial investigation concluded that the pilot of the Cessna was at fault for the collision.  But the NTSB reopened the case in 2006 because of apparent irregularities in the original investigation identified by Paul Houle, a local historian.  Though the NTSB upheld their original conclusions, new facts presented showed multiple factors leading to the tragedy.6,7  Most historians looking into the events agree that the air traffic control procedures of the time, as well as the minimum pilot skill levels then required for IFR flight, combined with several mistakes on the day of the incident to produce the circumstances that led to the crash.6,7

References

  1. Parce, Mead (1967, July 19). Rescue Workers Search for Victims. The Times News, pp. 1A
  2. Staff Reporter (1967, July 19). All Passengers And Crewman Perish In Noon Plane Crash Here. The Times News, pp. 1A
  3. Staff Reporter (1967, July 20). A Ball of Fire—Then The Tragedy. The Times News, pp.1A
  4. Staff Reporter (1967, July 20). Safety Board Will Conduct Official Inquiry of Crash. The Times News, pp.1A
  5. Staff Reporter (1967, July 24). Rescue Squad, Others Agencies Did Big Job. The Times News, pp8
  6. Houle, Paul D. (2016) The crash of Piedmont Airlines Flight 22: Completing the record of the 1967 midair collision near Hendersonville, North Carolina Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers
  7. National Transportation Safety Board. (2008) Aviation Accident Report AAR68AJ Piedmont Aviation, Inc., Piedmont Airlines Division, Boeing 727, N68650, Lanseair Inc., Cessna 310, N3121S Retrieved from https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/AAR68AJ.aspx

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