Monday, January 30, 2012

Two Perish As Plane Crashes Into Reservoir

That was the front page headline on the June 3, 1972 edition of the Clarion Ledger. The story brought tragic news - two local men were killed when their plane went down near Overlook Point on the Madison County side of the lake. 

The pilot, Jim Waller, was an experienced aviator with over 5000 hours in the cockpit. He was doing an aerobatics routine while an on-board cameraman took video for a news story.

The man with the camera was WAPT (TV 16) sports anchor, Dick Thames.

Read the Clarion Ledger article about the accident then come back for "The Rest Of The Story".

Article HERE.

Fairchild PT-19
Type plane that crashed into The Rez

The newspaper article said "Another TV Channel 16 newsman was shooting film from the ground at the Madison Airfield".

The other newsman was WAPT News anchor, Jim Jeffries, but he wasn't shooting film.

We tracked Jim down, he lives near The Rez and told us what happened that day.

Flashback to June, 2nd 1972.

Jim and Dick had the idea to film an aerobatic routine for a news story about an upcoming air show at North Jackson Aviation - they grabbed a camera and headed to Madison.  Their idea was to get video of the plane's performance from the cockpit and the ground. 

They agreed that one would go up with the camera and film from the cockpit, after the routine the plane would land and the newsmen would swap places, the camera would remain on the ground so film could be shot from the airfield.

Good plan.

While waiting for the pilot they received a call from WAPT news director, Bert Case.  The president of General Motors was in Clinton to attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Packard Electric plant and afterwards doing a walking tour of Clinton.  Bert needed one of them to meet a cameraman in Clinton to cover the story. 

Neither Jim or Dick wanted to go to Clinton, the thrill of a plane ride was much more exciting than a walking tour.  They decided to settle the issue with a coin toss.

A fifty cent piece was produced and tossed into the air.  Dick won the toss and would stay at the airfield, Jim headed to Clinton.   He covered the events in Clinton and was returning to Madison when he heard the news on his car radio -  a plane had crashed into the reservoir.

Jim said his heart stopped.

His worst fears were soon confirmed, Dick Thames was on the plane that went down.

When the plane was recovered the camera was still in the cockpit.  Jim had advised Dick to loop the aircraft seat belt through the camera strap, it would help steady the camera in flight.  Recovery crews gave the camera to the TV personnel - they dried and processed the film.  The results were incredible.  

Amazingly, Dick Thames kept the camera operating until impact and the entire out-of-control spin was caught on film.  WAPT ran the video on several of their news broadcasts.  

We spoke with Bert Case who still has memories of the film - he recalled the spinning motion of the landscape and remembered seeing the Jackson Yacht Club appear 5 times as the plane spun downward. 

We contacted WAPT to see if the they still had the film but it appears to have been lost.

The 1972 WAPT News Team
(L to R) Bert Case, Hank Downey, Jim Jeffries, Dick Thames, cameraman Martel Cook

Jim was having a portrait done at that time, it was complete except for the camera in his hands.

The camera was the same one Dick used in the plane that went down. Jim decided to leave the portrait unfinished, it now hangs in his home as shown above. 

Jim retrieved the wooden propeller from the recovered wreckage, it was splintered on impact but the hub portion survived. It's kept in a corner of his home office - a constant reminder of how losing a coin toss might have saved his life.

Jim is no longer in the news business - he does specialized maintenance on aircraft, his company is Jim Jeffries Airworks

The Rez News
Barnett Reservoir


ED-C said...

Interesting and sad bit of local history I had never heard before... Thanks for sharing it!

Kathy Smith said...

I remember that like it was yesterday, the music that they played while the video ran, it was so sad..............

Anonymous said...

I don't remember this tragic incident , but thanks for continuing to post rez history.

I had also forgotten that Mr. Bert Case was with WAPT
for a short time back in the 1970's.

T. Ward said...

I owned a Fairchild PT-23 in the mid-1960's (same aircraft as the PT-19 but with a different engine). They were fairly benign airplanes and we did aerobatics, including spins, many times without problems.

The following link is to the original NTSB accident report. There you can see what they determined to be the cause of that unfortunate accident.

Anonymous said...

I remember this like yesterday also. I was a child of 12 yrs. living across the Natchez Trace our subdivision overlooked the Overlook. We were out playing and heard the noise and ran to the end of the road and watched the plane and crews arrive. Such a sad day for all of us and our neighbors, one who thought her son was flying that day. I am just now reading the story of what occurred that day 40 years ago. My heart still races remembering the event.

Carl W. Merck said...

I remember Jim Waller well.
He was a friend of my dad, M.G. Merck, and when I was in grade school, he gave me his medals he was awarded as a fighter pilot in WWII.

I remember vividly when he took me and my two older twin sisters on a plane ride from the Madison airport and started doing aerial acrobatics with no warning and how much it frightened me!

Kevin said...

Dick Thames was my father. Thank you for the article. Amazing how a simple coin toss can change lives.