When you think of the legends of country music, Patsy Cline has to be damn close to the top of the list. With classics like Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “I Fall to Pieces” still being played today, Patsy blazed a trail for women in country music maybe more than any other.
But on this day 59 years ago, Patsy Cline tragically passed away in a plane crash on her way back to Nashville.
Back in 1963, Patsy was undeniably one of the biggest names in country music, a pioneer of a new style of country music known as “the Nashville sound.”
But she also had frequent premonitions about her own death.
According to friends like Loretta Lynn, June Carter Cash and Dottie West, Patsy often felt a sense of “impending doom” and felt like she wasn’t going to live much longer.
And unfortunately those fears came true on March 5, 1963.
On March 3, Patsy had played a show at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas. It was a benefit concert for the family of a local DJ, “Cactus” Jack Call, who had recently passed away in a car accident. Along with Patsy, the show featured performances by George Jones, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Billy Walker, and other big names in country music at the time.
Despite having a cold, Patsy performed at all three shows that day, ending her final performance with her newly-recorded “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone.”
Patsy wasn’t able to fly out of Kansas City the next day after the airport was fogged in, and declined a ride back to Nashville from West and her husband. According to West, Patsy told her, “Don’t worry about me, Hoss. When it’s my time to go, it’s my time.”
The next day, Patsy boarded her Piper Comanche airplane along with Copas, Hawkins, and her pilot Randy Hughes, who was also Patsy’s manager and the son-in-law of Copas. Hawkins had accepted a spot on the plane that opened up after Billy Walker had booked a commercial flight home so that he could take care of a sick family member.
The plane took off from Kansas City’s Fairfax Municipal Airport and made a stop in Arkansas before continuing on to the Dyersburg Regional Airport in Dyersburg, Tennessee. After landing in Dyersburg around 5:00 PM, Hughes was told that the weather conditions were marginal for visual flight rules (VFR), and that the Nashville airport was below VFR minimums – which meant, basically, that he wouldn’t be able to see the ground.
The airfield manager in Dyersburg tried to get the crew to spend the night there due to the poor conditions. They even offered the group free rooms and meals. But Hughes, who was required to fly in VFR conditions because he wasn’t certified to fly using only his instruments, told the airport that he would turn back if he couldn’t make the trip back to Nashville. “I’ve already come this far. We’ll be there before you know it.”
And with that, the ill-fated voyage took off for the final time at 6:07 PM.
Shortly after taking off, a witness heard a low-flying plane heading north, with its engine noise increasing, before seeing a white light falling out of the clouds towards the ground. He heard a dull-sounding crash before the noise disappeared into silence.
It was 6:29 PM. Patsy Cline and all the occupants of the plane were gone.
Search parties scoured the area near Camden, Tennessee, some 90-miles from Nashville, all through the night looking for the wreckage. But it was another country music legend, Roger Miller, who was the first one to locate the plane.
“As fast as I could, I ran through the woods screaming their names – through the brush and the trees – and I came up over this little rise, oh, my God, there they were. It was ghastly. The plane had crashed nose down.”
Looters scavenged the wreckage, with some items including Patsy’s dress from her last performance and the cash she had received from the appearance never being recovered. Some items from the crash, like Patsy’s watch, which had stopped at 6:20 PM, were donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Patsy was buried in her hometown of Winchester, Virginia. A memorial still marks the spot in Camden, Virginia where the plane went down. And her music remains a staple of jukeboxes and barrooms to this day – 59 years after her death.