Tuesday, March 15, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Reba McEntire Band (“The Crazy Eight”), March 16, 1991

Before Reba McEntire made name in movies and television, she had shaken up country music.  Coming out of a celebrated ranching and rodeo family from near Chockie, Oklahoma, Reba got her start in music singing with her siblings.  In 1974 she dropped out of Southeastern Oklahoma State to pursue a solo career in Nashville after country singer Red Steagall heard her sing the national anthem at a rodeo.  Over the next fifteen years she charged the gates of Nashville, stepping out of the bouffant and beehives of old Nashville while not fully aligning with the outlaw country sound of Waylon and Willie.  By 1990 her effort to fuse R&B and rock into country was criticized by traditionalists, but also pointed the way for the next generation of country stars.
            On March 15 1991, Reba McEntire and her band were in San Diego to play a private concert for a group of IBM executives at the San Diego Sheraton Harbor Island Hotel.  After the concert the group would briefly part ways before a planned meet-up in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Reba and her husband, Narvel Blackstock, were to stay in San Diego for the night and then fly to Indiana the next day.  Reba had been suffering bronchitis and Blackstock had insisted that she rest and recover.  The rest of the band and crew will fly on to Fort Wayne after the show in two craft, departing from San Diego’s Brown Field. 
            On the first flight, leaving at about 1:41 AM, were road manager Jim Hammon and band members Kirk Cappello, Paula Kaye Evans, Michael Thomas, Terry Jackson, Anthony Saputo, Chris Austin, and Joey Cigainero.  At the controls of the Hawker Siddeley DH.125-1A/522  were pilots Donald Holms and Chris Hollinger. Two minutes later the craft struck Otay Mountain, killing all onboard. A review of the flight history reveals a breakdown in communication.

Communication between the pilot and the airport indicated that Holms did not have an instrument departure procedure from Brown Field.  Holms filed an IR flight plan, indicating that he would “depart VFR toward the northeast” and then obtain an IFR clearance after departure. The pilot also specifically expressed concerns about staying below 3,000’.  At this point one communication breakdown becomes clear – the pilot was evidently inquiring about problems staying below 3,000’ above sea level, while the FSS Specialist though the pilot meant 3,000’ above ground-level. This distinction proved fatal.
A delay in the arrival of the band at the airport further complicated things.  The instrument plan filed at midnight by Holms expired at 1:30AM.  The flight departed before the new instrument flight plan was entered  -- indeed, the new plan was being entered into the computer just as the Hawker Siddeley slammed into the mountain at a height of 3,300’ and going in excess of 200 mph – 400 feet shy of the peak and sufficiently fast that no one on board probably knew what happened. Soon after the accident, comment from the FAA’s Richard Childress summed up the mystery at the time “The radar showed the plane was holding altitude and air speed . . . It just disappeared . . .  It's possible [the pilot] didn't see the mountain."
 The NTSB’s probable cause evaluation lays the blame for the accident at the feet of the pilot, with the flight specialist contributing to the cause, stating that

Improper Planning/Decision By The Pilot, The Pilot's Failure To Maintain Proper Altitude And Clearance Over Mountainous Terrain, And The Copilot's Failure To Adequately Monitor The Progress Of The Flight. Factors Related To The Accident Were: Insufficient Terrain Information Provided By The Flight Service Specialist During The Preflight Briefing After The Pilot Inquired About A Low Altitude Departure, Darkness, Mountainous Terrain, Both Pilot's Lack Of Familiarity With The Geographical Area, And The Copilot's Lack Of Familiarity With The Aircraft.

People Magazine noted, with no small amount of irony, that “Among their last numbers [performed by the Crazy Eight] was one of McEntire's favorites, ‘Sweet Dreams,’ made famous by her idol, Patsy Cline, who died in a 1963 hillside plane crash.”
            McEntire was emotionally distraught over the event.  She and Blackstock moved to contact the second jet, which had arrived safely in Memphis to refuel en route to Fort Wayne.  She canceled all events except for an appearance at the Academy Awards (for which she was initially criticized).  And, strange events seemed to be at work. In an interview with People Magazine soon after the accident, Reba revealed one of the oddities of the evening:

I remember a strange thing happened that night in San Diego. In the contract, audience members were not supposed to tape the show, but after the concert Narvel heard my voice singing “Sunday Kind of Love.” He realized somebody had taped it. Jim ran out to see about it and came back with the tape, saying they apologized for making it. Jim handed the tape to Narvel, and I started to ask why, because Jim always took care of that stuff. But I didn't say a word. So the tape was with Narvel instead of Jim, and now we have the tape of the last show they played with me.
About the Hawker Siddeley DH.125: The DH.125 is a twin engine executive jet developed by the de Havilland.  Originating as the “Jet Dragon” in 1961, the prototype flew in 1962.  When de Havilland was bought out by Hawker Siddeley in 1963, the DH.125 was reclassified the HS.125 and still later redesignated the BAe 125 when British Aerospace purchased Hawker Siddeley.  In 1993, Raytheon bough BAe’s business jet division and the craft was again reclassified the Raytheon Hawker. The compact craft has a crew of two and carries eight passenger, with a cruising speed of 453mph, a range of over 2,500 miles, and an operational ceiling of 41,000’.Since 1962 over 1,000 125’s have been assembled and sold around the world.