Ensign Lyman W. Keele, Jr. with his wife Cathleen
CD: Ron, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today about Lyman W. Keele, Jr. and the events surrounding his death after the April 4, 1977 crash of Southern Airways Flight 242. You worked together at Southern, and you were both reservists at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, GA. But first, please describe how you became an A-7 attack pilot aboard the USS Oriskany in the final months of the Vietnam War.
RC: “I finished four years at Auburn in August of 1968, and the day I graduated I took a bus to Pensacola, Florida. So I graduated on Saturday, and by Monday I had started flight school in Pensacola. It took me six weeks to finish my primary training on T-34’s at Saufley Field – these are Continue reading
The fans at Altamont Speedway
December of 1969 was a fitting end to a turbulent decade in American history: the Black Panthers were under attack in LA; The Jackson 5 made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; John Lennon was offered the lead role in Jesus Christ Superstar; Arlo Guthrie released Alice’s Restaurant; and on Sunday, December the 6th, more then 300,000 ecstatic fans attended the Rolling Stones free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California. Four people died that on tragic day, and countless others were injured. Some critics claim it was the final death knell for the “Age of Aquarius” – a total knockout blow to the abiding myth of rock & roll innocence. Continue reading
Jimmy Johnson with Ronee Blakley
Jimmy Johnson brags that back in the day, back when the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was firing on all cylinders, he recorded a new album every week. Jimmy stayed in demand as both a music producer and sound engineer, but he was also the versatile guitarist for the sound studio’s legendary house band, famously called “The Swampers.” I contacted him recently, and we spoke about Annette Snell, the R&B singer who died in the Southern 242 plane crash on April 4, 1977, just hours after completing her first recording session at his studio. Johnson remembered her quite well, and recalled her powerful drive and enormous talent. We also spoke about his accomplished younger brother Earl, an engineer who tragically lost his life in the same plane crash. Continue reading
Jimmy at Earl’s graduation from Auburn
Jimmy Johnson has scaled Olympian musical heights. He was the guitar player for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (aka “The Swampers”), as well as a member of two legendary hit factories: Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Al, and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in nearby Sheffield. Johnson has had a long and storied recording career – the Swampers’ indelible discography is awe inspiring in its length, depth, and breadth, tracing an arc from rhythm & blues to rock and roll; from crunchy folk to soaring disco; from blue eyed soul to classic country ballads and beyond.
Critics and musicologists alike sing the group’s infinite praises, attempting to define the vision that allowed them to shine so brightly. Almost five Continue reading
Paul John Knowles
Paul John Knowles was a nasty piece of work. He met his violent end on December 18, 1974, sprawled across the backseat of a sheriff’s sedan after making his final bid for freedom. He failed spectacularly, taking three bullets to the chest, but not before securing his coveted spot on the All-America hit list as one of the most unpredictable and depraved rampage killers of his generation.
He never had a chance to display the courtroom swagger of a Ted Bundy, or dine out with the savage voracity of a Jeffrey Dahmer. But he did possess a monumental cruelty, one that favored the intimate feel of a nylon stocking as it slowly tightened around a woman’s neck. Still, he was not averse to the coldly plunging knife, or even a swift bullet to the back of his victim’s head. Continue reading
Controller at the display
Two months after the crash of Southern Airways Flight 242, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted a five day public hearing at the Sheraton-Biltmore Hotel in Atlanta, GA. The witnesses included crash survivors, internal investigators, engine specialists, air traffic controllers, meteorologists, and a host of other experts directly involved with the crash investigation. Their testimony highlighted the series of fatal mistakes that led to the accident on April 4, 1977, claiming the lives of 63 people on board and nine others on the ground.
One of the prime miscues occurred 16 minutes into the flight from Huntsville, AL to Atlanta, right after the plane Continue reading
Flight Attendant Sandy Purl at the Southern Airways Flight 242 memorial service in 1997
The first responders were already gearing up for a fiery rescue in the moments before the co-pilot of Southern Airways Flight 242 lowered his landing gear and touched down dead center on a narrow strip of highway in New Hope, GA. Bobby Bruce, an employee of the city of Dallas, GA, had been quietly working atop Cemetery Hill when he saw the crippled jetliner plunge to earth. He immediately sent an emergency alert from the city radio in his truck to the dispatcher at the nearby Dallas Police Department – it became the first warning signal that a terrible tragedy was about to overwhelm the rural community.
The Dallas Police Department contacted the Dallas Fire Department, alerting Assistant Fire Chief Elsberry at the Standard Oil gas station where he worked. The nearby Union City Fire Department was also notified. Continue reading
Braly Sports Complex in Dallas, GA
The exact spot where Southern 242’s wreckage is buried remains a mystery – but it can be found in a very public place. Early on into this oral history project I discovered that the remains were in fact quickly and quietly buried near the crash site. Every year, thousands of local sports fans unknowingly visit this forgotten tomb during games at the Samuel U. Braly Sports Complex in Dallas, GA. How is this even possible? The story begins right after the plane tragically lost both engines in a hailstorm on April 4, 1977. Continue reading
Southern Airways fleet of 404’s in Atlanta, GA (Photo ca. 1972)
The National Transportation Safety Board is iconic. Everyone recognizes their intrepid investigators, clad in navy blue shirts emblazoned with the yellow “NTSB” logo, swarming all over the smoldering wreckage of airplanes, ships, and trains. Established in 1967, the Board is mandated by the U. S. Government to conduct independent investigations into every type of accident on land, air, and sea. Their final recommendations often result in significant changes to the existing transportation safety regulations. Continue reading
Catherine Cooper in 1997
The tragic crash of Southern Airways Flight 242 is a cruel story of destruction, mayhem, and death. The captain died from his injuries, and the first officer expired while he was being medivaced to Kennestone Hospital. Twenty passengers died from fatal injuries due to severe burns and smoke inhalation, and 31 others were killed from crushing trauma to both the head and the upper body. Nine more passengers succumbed to a combination of trauma, burns, and smoke inhalation. The last victim lingered for over two months before he passed.
But there were also 22 lucky survivors, including both of the flight attendants – Catherine Lemoine Cooper and Sandy Purl. The survivors sustained a variety of injuries: most were burned about the head, face, hands, and lower Continue reading
Southern Airways DC-9
The final moments aboard Southern Airways Flight 242 were chaotic yet controlled: the first officer was searching in vain for a suitable runway; the pilot was furiously trying to restart the disabled engines; and the two flight attendants were keeping the unnerved passengers calm and focused during the hurried preparations for an unlikely forced landing.
First Officer Lyman Keele, Jr., a former Navy fighter pilot with more than 100 combat missions under his belt, had to quickly master the art of piloting a fully disabled McDonnell Douglas DC-9 after they lost both engines in a hailstorm – only 16 minutes after takeoff. The glide ratio for a DC-9 is approximately 15:1, depending on the weather conditions, so when the plane lost thrust at 17,000 feet, he had to quickly find a landing site. But after piloting the powerless aircraft for eight minutes in a free-falling glide, he finally ran out of time. Keele was forced to make a “dead-stick” landing on a narrow, Continue reading
Annette Snell in NYC
It was late in the morning on April 4, 1977, when a jubilant Annette Snell returned to the building at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama. She had spent the past week there recording her first album, and all of the guys at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio assured her the new songs would power straight up the Billboard 100. She knew they could make it happen too – they had done it a decade earlier with a singer named Aretha Franklin, helping her to become the undisputed queen of soul by jump starting her stalled career with monster hits like “Respect,” and the classic “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
She took one last look around, and then hurriedly left the studio with just enough time to grab her things Continue reading
Werner von Braun and JFK at Redstone Arsenal in 1963
On April 4, 1977, William V. Gudaitis boarded the ill-fated Southern Airways Flight 242 in Huntsville, AL as he headed to a meeting at Raytheon Co. in Lexington, MA. He was a top scientist for the Redstone Arsenal, and his briefcase bulged with top-secret documents that detailed a revolutionary new missile design – one that would completely change the existing paradigm. It was called the “Patriot Air Defense Missile System,” and the plans he carried would soon become the prototype for the next generation of guided missile defense. He did not survive the tragic crash in New Hope, GA, but his briefcase did. Once again, Redstone would ride triumphant.
Redstone Arsenal has always served as ground zero for the U.S. Army’s missile and rocket programs. Originally built in 1941 as an assembly plant for the manufacturing Continue reading
Hanging Mary and her cat “Shadows,” posing in the Little Girls’ Dormitory
Mary’s last hanging was darkly beautiful as she slowly swayed from the third floor balcony of the orphanage dormitory. The carefully tied noose was tied flawlessly, and it fit perfectly around her slender neck. She quietly peeked from underneath her linen hood, hoping that the children watching on the stairs below would never forget her every twist and turn.
The orphans were mesmerized. A few of the older children recalled her past hangings, but the little ones had only heard the stories. They could all recite the rhyme about her first “collaring” down at the dairy barn 15 years earlier, and they sang it over and over as she swung: “Hanging Mary stole some rope, climbed upon a box of soap, tied a knot down at the dairy, slipped and fell, poor Hanging Mary…” Continue reading
New Hope, GA has seen its fair share of bounders, rounders, and hooligans seeking their fortune. Ever since the bloody Battle of New Hope Church in May of 1864, every conceivable type of grifter has drifted into town, searching for the gold rumored to be hidden in a tunnel beneath that historic church. The Sons of the Confederacy have witnessed them come and go over the decades, but they have all left empty handed. None have been able to sneak past the Ghost Sentry, that intrepid soldier who has guarded its entrance for over 150 years. But there was one cunning desperado, a man of immense wealth and taste, who came very close indeed. Continue reading
Lyman W. Keele, Jr. returns home from the war in Vietnam
Lyman W. Keele, Jr. was a natural born aviator. After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno in 1966, he joined the U. S. Navy and received his flight training at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. He was assigned to the carrier USS Hancock, and he flew over 100 combat missions during the war in Vietnam. He also provided air support for both ground combat forces and troop rescue operations. Keele earned numerous bronze and gold Air Medals for his prowess, as well as a Navy Commendation Medal for “heroic achievement as a pilot of jet aircraft while attached to Attack Squadron 212 aboard the USS Hancock.” The man could flat-out fly an airplane. Continue reading
New Hope Church
Some time ago I found myself visiting Dallas, GA, riding along with the sons of the Confederacy as they refreshed the flags on their ancestors’ graves. They were a dedicated group of guys, and our journey took us into the most remote corners of Paulding County. At the end of the day we found ourselves in the parking lot of the New Hope Church, site of a bloody Civil War battle in 1864. They had finished their task and called it a job well done, so we celebrated with a cold coke and handshakes all around. As we spoke, they pointed out the monument and flag across the street, a testament to the hundreds of Confederate soldiers who died in that bloody battle. Continue reading