The Gentleman’s Last Flight

By Brad Dison

On Friday afternoon, July 31, 1964, two gentlemen, 39-year-old James Travis and 30-year-old Dean Manuel, left Batesville, Arkansas, in a single-engine, four-seat Beechcraft 35-B33 Debonair airplane. Travis piloted the plane he had rented from the Southeastern Beechcraft Co. at Berry Field in Nashville, Tennessee. After taking off from the regional airport at Batesville, Travis aimed the airplane to the east and headed back toward Berry Field. Travis and Manuel expected to fly the 310 miles back to Nashville in under two hours.

At about 4:50 p.m., Travis radioed the tower at Berry Field that he was flying into a heavy rain storm. The radar operator heard concern in Travis’s voice and tried several times to make contact with Travis. He received no reply. Five minutes later, the Beechcraft airplane disappeared from the radar screen.

Marty Robbins, a country and western singer known for hits such as “A White Sport Coat”, “The Story of My Life”, and “El Paso”, was at his home in Nashville when he heard a low-flying plane. He looked up and saw the airplane just before it went below the tree line. He heard the unmistakable sound of the plane crashing into the trees. He immediately notified the authorities.

John Moran, who lived nearby, heard the engine sputtering and, like Marty Robbins, heard the plane crash. He described it as “a thump.” Mrs. William Wirshing, who also lived nearby, said the plane sounded like it “conked out.”

Several agencies and a host of individuals began searching for the missing plane including the Davidson County Civil Defense, local and state police, and volunteers, some on horseback. Several airplanes and helicopters flew over the area during daylight hours, but found no sign of an airplane crash. H.H. Atkins, supervisor of the air traffic control sector of the Nashville Federal Aeronautics Administration, said “We had planes over the crash area a few minutes after 5 p.m. Friday, just five minutes after radar contact was lost.”

The area where the plane went missing was home to several country music stars including Bill Pursell, Eddy Arnold, Chet Atkins, Ernest Tubb, Stonewall Jackson and, as mentioned above, Marty Robbins. They all helped in the search for the missing plane.

Based on the testimony of Marty Robbins, John Moran and Mrs. Wirshing, Davidson County Civil Defense workers concentrated their search in the vicinity of Franklin Road. They went door-to-door and asked residents if they had seen or heard the airplane. Puryear Mims said the plane circled over his swimming pool and headed toward Radnor Lake. Miss Ruth DeLacey was inside her home when she felt “a vibration like an explosion. It was like something had hit the house,” she said. She heard no airplane and was unaware that an airplane was missing. She walked outside and saw smoke in the woods for only a moment. Miss DeLacey walked toward the smoke but returned to her home when she failed to see what caused the smoke.

Although investigators had narrowed down the search area based on the testimony of multiple witnesses, they were unable to locate the airplane. Searchers hunted the missing plane Friday night, all day Saturday, and began again on Sunday morning. On that Sunday morning, August 2nd, some forty-four hours after the search began, Civil Defense investigator Bob Newton reviewed the testimony of Puryear Mims, who said the plane flew over his swimming pool and headed toward Radnor Lake. Bob drew a line from Mims’s house to Radnor lake on a local map. He then followed this path from Mims’s house toward the lake on foot. Within a short while, Bob found the remains of the missing plane. He was only about five hundred yards from the main area of the two-day search. He found Manuel’s mangled body among the wreckage. He found Travis’s lifeless body about thirty yards from the wreckage. After it was clear that neither Manuel nor Travis had survived, Bob called for help.

The National Transportation and Safety Board determined that Travis, the pilot, had experienced spatial disorientation during the rain storm which led to the plane crash. Investigators concluded that the plane “went into a nosedive and crashed into the base of a tree, leaving the top branches undisturbed,” which explained why rescue helicopters and airplanes were unable to locate the wreckage.

Investigators identified the two men by the information in their wallets. Country music star Eddy Arnold had been personal friends of Travis and Manuel, and identified the bodies of his friends. Dean Manuel was a piano player in Travis’s band and was also Travis’s business manager. Few people, though, knew Travis by that… his middle name. After high school, he became a disc jockey at KWKH, home of the Louisiana Hayride radio program, in Shreveport, Louisiana, and switched to a shortened version of his first name, James. Because of his polite manner on and off the stage, and his velvet voice on recordings such as “Four Walls,” “He’ll Have to Go,” and “Am I Losing You,” people referred to him as Gentleman Jim. Travis, the pilot of the ill-fated flight was James Travis “Gentleman Jim” Reeves.

1. The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), August 3, 1964, p.1.
2. The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), August 4, 1964, p.1.

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