Clearing the Air

No one survived the midair collision of a Boeing 727 and a Cessna 310 on July 19, 1967 in a wooded area near downtown Hendersonville. The disaster prompted the first investigation by the newly formed National Transportation Safety Board.

It was the summer of 1967, and Polly Woodham’s family — including her five young children — were at their annual vacation on Lake Summit when they heard about a small airplane crashing into an airliner over Hendersonville. The ensuing international news coverage of the catastrophe and death of 82 people was immediate, extensive, and reached even those who were trying to get away from it all.

“I remember when we drove by and saw all of the bodies laid out on the interstate,” the octogenarian from Spartanburg tells Bold Life. “The children all turned their heads away because they didn’t want to see them. It was so terrible.”

Like the traffic on newly opened I-26, normal life in Hendersonville came to a halt while everyone tried to process the magnitude of what had happened. But there was no time to stop and contemplate: the community had to step up immediately and deal with the devastating loss of life and the wreckage, strewn across 10 acres by some estimates. Even the Boy Scouts were called upon to hunt for debris.

Now, 50 years later, the crash of Piedmont Flight 22 is still remembered by surviving eyewitnesses. For many more, it’s an interesting piece of local history. However, the anniversary of the crash has rarely been observed, so Henderson County Heritage Museum is doing so via a public gathering, speakers, and a display of photos and artifacts. The program results from a year’s worth of research by Mark Shepherd, a certified emergency rescue technician at the Henderson County Rescue Squad, and Terry Robinson, a Heritage Museum board member. “It was an iconic event for the community,” Robinson says. “People still remember exactly what they were doing when they heard about the crash. It was what Henderson County was known for at the time — and it was not a good thing.”

Mark Shepherd, a certified emergency rescue technician with the Henderson County Rescue Squad, researched for a year (including collecting the vintage photos shown) to hold this month’s 50th-year commemoration of the crash. Photo by Tim Robison

At about noon that day, a twin-engine Cessna 310 carrying three people at about 6,000 feet slammed into a Boeing 727 carrying 79 people. The Cessna was starting its descent landing to Asheville Regional Airport; the Boeing 727 had just taken off from the same airport, using the same runway intended for the Cessna, heading to Roanoke, Virginia. Both aircrafts were communicating with the airport’s control tower but on different frequencies. On impact, the smaller plane was immediately obliterated; the jet airliner rolled onto its back and crashed into a wooded area between I-26 and Camp Pinewood. (According to an eyewitness report, the Boeing circled briefly, “like a buzzard,” before crashing.)

Everyone died. Scores of local citizens heard the sonic boom-like crash and looked up to see the falling aircraft. It is still considered to be one of the worst midair collisions in U.S. aviation history.

Today, there’s virtually no physical evidence of the crash left on the land, which is still forested, just south of I-26 and the Chimney Rock Road intersection. However, if you stand in the back parking lot of Outback Steakhouse and look left toward the interstate, you can see the dense woods where the airliner went down.

Another unremarkable view is from the back parking lot of the Cascades Mountain Resort on the other side of the highway.

Everyone from firemen and the local rescue squad to everyday citizens (even Boy Scouts) were called upon to help clean up the massive wreckage.

The accident was the subject of countless news articles, and it prompted the first investigation by the newly formed National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB’s findings put the primary responsibility of the accident on the Cessna’s pilot; however, mistakes by air-traffic control were cited as a contributing factor. In 2006, the investigation was reopened because of research by author Paul Houle, who published The Crash of Piedmont Airlines Flight 22: Completing the Record of the 1967 Midair Collision Near Hendersonville, North Carolina (his findings upheld the original rulings). In 2007, a stone monument with the names of victims was erected on the property of the defunct Mountain First Bank & Trust near Four Seasons Boulevard.

The new event is intended to honor the dead, the emergency responders who headed the aftermath efforts, and the local community that came together during this tragedy, says Shepherd, who was born 15 years after the crash. He’s gathered dozens of grainy photographs and a wood-bound scrapbook with many yellowed newspaper articles about the crash. He and Robinson plan a simple, dignified public ceremony consisting of a moment of silence at 12:01 pm and three speakers: Shepherd, Houle, and Mark Warwick, general manager of radio station WTZQ. In addition, an 8-foot square column will host a display of photographs and information in the Museum’s lobby. Also on view will be a piece of fused metal wreckage, on loan by a private citizen.

Robinson hopes to have about six video testimonials by local people who actually saw the crash or were involved with the cleanup. “You don’t want to forget the people whose lives were lost,” he says. His personal connection to the crash is a cousin said to have been the first person on the scene. So it’s also important to honor the emergency responders, he adds. “Back then, you didn’t have a formal network of professionals. You had people who came out because because they were needed. It was very homegrown. Everyone was a volunteer.”

Shepherd is especially proud of how well the county’s Rescue Squad, plus the Hendersonville Fire Department and nearby district fire departments, headed up the search-and-rescue effort back in 1967; he has letters of commendation from government officials praising their efforts. With the help of the FBI and some 400 out-of-county responders, the local rescue squad and local fire departments “did a wonderful job in handling this incident,” he says. “But we always seek closure in these sort of tragedies.”

The Henderson County Heritage Museum and the Henderson County Rescue Squad will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the crash of Piedmont Airlines Flight 22 on Wednesday, July 19, at 11:30am in front of the Historic Courthouse on Main Street in downtown Hendersonville. For more information, call 828-674-1255 or see hendersoncountymuseum.org.

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