Friday, February 5, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Richard Obenshain


In 1978, Virginia Republican Senator William Scott decided to not seek reelection.  As is the custom in Virginia, the state convention selected a nominee.  The convention did not have to look too far, choosing the GOP’s state party chairman, lawyer Richard Obenshain of Blacksburg.  The Republican Pary had not been competitive in much of Virginia for the previous century, but Obenshain had worked to recruit GOP candidates and build an organization that could take advantage of the collapse of the Democratic Byrd/Flood Machine.  Obenshain had vanquished former Secretary of the Navy John Warner at the state party convention, and was poised to hold the Virginia seat for the Republicans. 
            On August 2, Obenshain boarded a Piper 34A (tail number N56122) in Winchester to continue to Chesterfield,Virginia. The campaign day had started from Washington metro area. At approximate 11:00 PM his aircraft was approaching Chesterfield under scattered cloud cover when it was waved off on a go-around and it collided with trees. Obenshain and the two-man flight crew were killed in the crash. The NTSB determined multiple probable causes for the crash, including the decision of the pilot to fly into adverse weather conditions; a lack of familiarity with the aircraft type by the pilot (he had less than two hours of flying time in the type); and efforts to operate the craft beyond pilot’s experience. Visibility was under one mile, and IFR rules were in effect. According to the NTSB, the “left seat [pilot] had expired medical & was not current,” indicating that a variety of factors typically at work in small-craft crashes were at work, heightening the prospect for tragedy. 
            Obenshain’s untimely death left the Virginia Republicans without a candidate to oppose the Democratic candidate, former state attorney general Andrew Miller.  The state committee turned to John Warner. 
            Warner and his wife, the Academy-Award winning actress Elizabeth Taylor, not only agreed to take on the campaign, but the Warners personally retired the campaign debt of his convention opponent.  Taylor was a huge campaign asset for the somewhat reserved and patrician Warner, who narrowly won election over Miller.  John Warner would go on to  win reelection in 1984, 1990, 1996, and 2002, to become the second-longest serving senator ever from Virginia and chairman of the Armed Services committee.
            Elizabeth Taylor, who had married Warner in 1976, divorced the Senator in 1982; it was the second-longest of her eight marriages. It is worth noting that, twenty years earlier, on March 22, 1958, Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband, Michael Todd, died in a crash outside Grants, New Mexico.  The Academy Award-winning producer and screenplay writer was flying from California to New York to receive a Friars’ Club Award when his Lockheed Loadstar N300E, “The Lucky Liz,” flew into adverse weather conditions, accumulating ice on its wings, and crashed in the Zuni Mountains.