History of the Chilton County Airport

1937 Aerial

1937 Aerial

As preparations begin for the Independence Day celebration of 1937, the citizens of Chilton County finally had reason to be optimistic about their future. After eight long years of hardship brought about by economic depression, New Deal programs initiated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had begun to reduce the staggering rate of unemployment that had persisted across the country. The escalating crisis in Europe that would eventually encompass the nations of the world in a second global war remained only a regional conflict separated from most Americans by the vast Atlantic Ocean.

For the people of Chilton County, optimism abounded for another reason as well. In addition to the Independence Day celebration, the weekend of July 3-4, 1937 was slated for the public dedication of the county’s new airport. Located on a sixty-acre parcel of property purchased from local resident E.W. Miller, the new airport had been constructed through provisions of the Civil Works Administration and its successor, the Works Progress Administration. Beginning in 1934, seventy-five men plied their shovels, scrapes, wagons and teams to prepare the ground for the landing areas.

Initially, the landing area was designed in the form of a huge cross, with points extending to the four corners of the sixty acre tract of land. In the geographical center of the field, four concrete markers emanated from a large circle, indicating the directions of the landing runways. On the south edge of the airfield, a large steel and brick hangar was constructed for the storage of aircraft. The location of the hangar was selected to ensure that it would not interfere with approaching aircraft.

The original design of the Chilton County Airport reflected a unique trend in Alabama airports during this era. Walter Sumpter Smith, aeronautical advisor for the Alabama airport construction program, believed an airport should be designed in a manner that provided recreational activities for members of the community in addition to its primary role as an aviation facility. The Alabama Air Park Plan utilized airport property to include the construction of a swimming pool, community club house, golf course and other recreational facilities. Although this concept was utilized at a few selected airports in Alabama, the cost of construction was substantial and the concept was eventually abandoned.

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Although pilots began using the airport prior to 1935, the field was officially dedicated in 1937 in conjunction with the annual Forth of July celebration. Hundreds of Chilton County residents attended the weekend event and were treated to aerobatic exhibitions, parachute jumps, a model airplane contest, and a demonstration of formation flying conducted by the 106th Observation Squadron from Birmingham. A large crowd attended the street dance on Saturday night held in honor of visiting fliers with music provided by a band from Avondale Mills in Sylacauga. Airplane rides were provided each day until dusk. On Sunday, all activities ceased between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. out of respect and observance of the “Church Hour.”

In his dedication address, Mayor Fenn Jones identified the leaders in the movement to construct an airport. These individuals included Dr. V. J. Gragg, J. Mell Martin, Charles Wade, Leo Thompson and John Hollis, “…all familiar names to the citizens of Clanton.” Originally, the airport was named in honor of Dr. Gragg, a local physician, civic leader and ardent supporter of aviation. The name was later expanded to Gragg-Wade Field, co-named in honor of Charles Wade, a local aviation pioneer.

As the United States began preparations to enter the escalating conflict in Europe in 1939, the Civilian Pilot Training Program was established to create a pool of pilots trained in basic airmanship. In the event of a national emergency, these individuals would be readily available for advanced training as military aviators. Typically, these programs were associated with colleges or established civilian flying schools. During 1940-41, twelve civilian pilot training sites were established in Alabama. The civilian pilot training program school at Clanton, operated by Charles Wade, was one of only four non-college facilities in the state. 

In March 1940, the Commissioners Court granted permission to the Civil Aeronautics Authority to construct a lighted airway beacon and perimeter lighting on the airport to equip the facility to serve as an auxiliary landing field along Air Mail Route 40 that originated in Memphis, Tennessee and terminated in Tampa, Florida. Auxiliary landing fields were positioned at regular intervals along established airways to provide adequate landing areas for aircraft to use in the event of an emergency. A series of lighted airway beacons, spaced at intervals of fifteen to twenty miles, were utilized by pilots as a means of navigation at night or during periods of inclement weather.

1948 AERIAL

1948 AERIAL

In March 1948, Judge W. L. Parrish announced that Chilton County had secured a large metal airplane hangar from the War Assets Administration. The hangar was obtained as surplus property from the recently decommissioned Tuskegee Army Air Field, the facility where approximately 1,000 African-American aviators were trained for military service during the Second World War. The Tuskegee Airmen became the first African-Americans in United States military history to be trained as aviators. During the Second World War and subsequent years, the Tuskegee Airmen served with honor and distinction in service of the United States of America.

The hangar, one of three originally located on the Tuskegee Army Air Field, was disassembled, transported to Chilton County, and reassembled on the south side of the airport where it has remained for more than sixty years, an enduring testament to this important chapter in American history.

Throughout its seventy-five year history, the Chilton County Airport has been the scene of a number of significant and, at times, tragic events. Perhaps the most notable of these was the accident that claimed the lives of R.W. Blackwood and Bill Lyles, members of the nationally renowned Blackwood Brothers Quartet. Blackwood, Lyles and Chilton County native Johnny Ogburn, Jr. were fatally injured on June 30, 1954 when their Beechcraft Model 18 aircraft crashed during a routine flight from the airport. As a featured attraction of the annual Peach Festival, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet had been scheduled to perform later that evening in the airport’s large metal hangar. In June 2001, the Clanton Lions Club erected a memorial to the Blackwood Brothers on the grounds of the airport.

Monument to dr. v. j. Gragg, M.D.

Monument to dr. v. j. Gragg, M.D.

The Chilton County Airport is one of the oldest, continuously operating aviation facilities in the state of Alabama. For three quarters of a century, the airport has served the needs of the citizens of Chilton County by providing the infrastructure necessary for the operation of critical aviation services that include humanitarian flights, emergency medical evacuations, law enforcement and fire patrols. Equally important, the airport serves as an essential resource in the economic development of Chilton County.

Through the years, politicians, movie stars, musicians, professional sports figures and other notable personalities have utilized Gragg-Wade Field as a gateway to Chilton County. The airport has also served to introduce Chilton County and its residents to a number of business owners and industrial developers. The runway at Gragg-Wade Field is truly the most important main street in Chilton County.     

The Blackwood Brothers Story

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“There is nothing in God’s world more beautiful than Alabama’s woods and hills, in early summer. The landscape, dressed in lush green, and the light blue haze that shadows the peaks, give you a feeling of awe at the magnificence of God’s creation.” James Blackwood, founding member and lead vocal of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet penned these words as he recalled the June 30, 1954 flight onboard the group’s Beechcraft Model 18 aircraft bound for Clanton, Alabama. The quartet, one of the most renowned southern gospel groups in the nation, was scheduled to perform as the main attraction at the seventh annual Chilton County Peach Festival being held at the Clanton airport.

Established in 1947, the Chilton County Peach Festival was created to recognize the region’s agricultural industry, especially local peach growers. J. Archie Ogburn, civic leader and member of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Thorsby was instrumental in organizing the festival and served as its first general chairman. With the exception of 1951, the county-wide celebration had been held on an annual basis and had become the region’s most eagerly anticipated community event. Advertised as the “Biggest and best Peach Festival,” marquee events of the 1954 celebration included an agricultural exposition, hillbilly singing and wrestling matches featuring Rowdy Red Roberts, former Southern Junior Heavyweight Champion.

The airport’s large metal hangar had been converted into an auditorium and concert hall with a stage erected at one end. Seats were brought in to accommodate crowds attending events that included crowning of the 1954 Peach Festival Queen. Thirty-five young women competing for the title would be judged by representatives of five Alabama colleges. Popular Albertville radio commentator Jessie Culp served as Master of Ceremonies. Dressing rooms were constructed adjacent to the hangar for the contestants and other Peach Festival performers. The area outside of the hangar was converted into a “cow palace”, a show place for cattle and other livestock. Workers also completed construction of a display area for local agricultural products.  

The headline of the Union Banner newspaper was almost prophetic in describing the concert that would culminate six big days and nights of the festival: “Entertainment the like of which Chilton County has never seen before is in store until Wednesday night, June 30th.” On that last night of the Peach Festival celebration, two of the most outstanding gospel quartets in the nation, the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen were scheduled to perform in the recently converted hangar at the Clanton Airport.

Formed in 1934 in Choctaw County, Mississippi during the Great Depression, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet originally performed in local churches where they would charge a nickel for concerts. Original members of the group included brothers James, Doyle and Roy Blackwood. The fourth member of the quartet was Roy’s son, 13-year-old baritone R.W. Blackwood. After moving to Memphis, Tennessee in 1950, the Blackwood Brother’s fame spread as they began to appear on radio and television stations throughout the southeast.  Fellow musician and Mississippi native Elvis Presley was a huge fan of gospel music and especially admired the Blackwood Brothers.

By 1954, several members of the original quartet had retired or left the group. Just two weeks before their Clanton performance, the Blackwood Brothers lineup of Bill Shaw (tenor), James Blackwood (lead), R.W. Blackwood (baritone), Bill Lyles (bass), and Jackie Marshall (piano), won the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts competition on national television with their stirring rendition of the gospel classic "Have You Talked to the Man Upstairs?"

As their popularity grew and their concert schedule became more demanding, the group decided to begin utilizing an airplane for their travel needs, reasoning that travel by air would be much more convenient and less fatiguing than riding in large automobiles that gospel groups typically used as their means of transportation.  From 1952 until 1954, the group owned a number of different airplanes before purchasing a ten-passenger, twin-engine Beechcraft Model 18. R. W. Blackwood piloted the aircraft while Bill Lyles served as co-pilot and navigator.

James Blackwood would later remember the flight from their last performance in Gulfport, Mississippi to Clanton as a beautiful experience, “Cruising at six thousand feet, the motors of our plane were humming a soothing, muted lullaby. Wisps of fleecy, white clouds were here and there, around us.” Arriving in Clanton at noon, Blackwood recalled being greeted by hundreds of their Chilton County fans, many of whom had been awaiting their arrival since early morning. After an hour of shaking hands, signing autographs and greeting admirers, the group was ushered into the large hangar where the concert was to be held. Although the formal program was not scheduled to begin until 7:00 p.m., the group did give a short, informal performance during a luncheon hosted by the Lions Club, sponsors of the evening concert.   

In 1954, the Clanton Airport consisted of two sod runways, one oriented in an east-west direction with the second northwest to southeast. Neither runway was equipped with lights for night takeoffs or landings. Since the Blackwood Brothers Quartet planned to return to Memphis immediately following the concert, a night takeoff on the unlighted runway would be required. Typically, automobiles would be parked along the sides of the runway and the headlights used to illuminate the takeoff area. At approximately 6:15 p.m., forty-five minutes before their concert was scheduled to begin, R.W. Blackwood, decided that he and co-pilot Bill Lyles would make a test flight to “get the lay of the field” so that he would have no trouble taking off later that evening.

On the spur of the moment, Blackwood and Lyles were joined on the flight by Johnny Ogburn, Jr., the twenty-year-old son and namesake of the founder of the Chilton County Peach Festival. Following graduation from high school, Ogburn had joined the United State Air Force and served as an Airman Second Class at Kesseler Field, Biloxi, Mississippi. Married to the former Peggy Joyce Noah, the couple had celebrated their first anniversary the previous week.

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A crowd had assembled to watch the takeoff. Inside the airplane, R.W. Blackwood and Bill Lyles could be seen in the pilot compartment while young Johnny Ogburn waved as he peered through a window in the passenger cabin. Shortly, the engines roared to life and the airplane begin to taxi to the end of the runway for takeoff. Because the wind had shifted since the time of their arrival, the takeoff and subsequent landing would be from the opposite direction from that used during their earlier arrival. This required the airplane to overfly a small hill during the landing approach. After clearing the hill, it would be necessary for the pilot to reduce speed and lose altitude quickly enough to touch down and stop on the short grass runway.

Dusk had fallen as the twin-engine Beechcraft began its takeoff. James Blackwood would later write that “twilight is for being with friends and family, for rest, for songs and for courting, but not the time for landing a large airplane on short and tricky landing strips.” After circling the field several times, the spectators watched intently as R.W. Blackwood maneuvered the big airplane into the landing pattern.  After clearing the small hill at the end of the runway, the pilot lowered the nose of the airplane forcefully, but the machine gathered speed and was moving too fast to land.

Realizing that insufficient runway remained, Blackwood pushed the throttles forward, retracted the landing gear and began a climb to enter the landing pattern for a second attempt. The assembled crowd, not understanding the drama that was unfolding before them, remained in a holiday mood, cheering and waving as the airplane climbed overhead.

Approaching the runway on the second attempt to land, James Blackwood observed the airplane clear the hill as the pilot began a “side-slip” maneuver to reduce speed and lose altitude rapidly. Touching down, the Beechcraft bounced back into the air. As before, R.W. Blackwood applied power to initiate a go-around maneuver to climb back into the air for another attempt to land.

Almost immediately, the crowd began to sense that something was terribly wrong as nose of the big airplane continued to rise into an almost vertical climb. Watching in horror, James Blackwood thought it was as though a giant, invisible hand was pulling a toy airplane up on a string. Then, as if in slow motion, the airplane seemed to hang suspended for a moment, neither climbing nor falling, before it appeared to gracefully turn and dive viciously into the ground.

As a young man, Clanton Mayor Billy Joe Driver was sitting on the last row of bleachers inside the hangar waiting for the Blackwood Brothers Quartet performance to begin. He recalled that “From my seat, I could see the airplane as it approached for landing. Although I couldn’t say why, it just didn’t look right to me. I could see the airplane as it began to climb. It appeared to go straight up into the air.  It looked like it was going to do a loop maneuver, but it nosed down and descended into the ground. At first, I thought it was some kind of prank, but all of a sudden people were running out of the hangar onto the landing field. We just couldn’t believe what had happened. It didn’t seem real.” According to the Union Banner newspaper, within seconds of the accident, “all was bedlam on the airport.” Because of the traffic congestion associated with the Peach Festival, the Fire Department and ambulances had a difficult time responding to the accident. The three occupants of the aircraft, R.W. Blackwood, James W. (Bill) Lyles and John Archie Ogburn, Jr. were fatally injured.

Later in the evening, at the request of Erskin Popwell and Harold Foshee, more than one thousand people gathered at the Clanton Airport. The assembled group voted that all the money collected from the sale of tickets to the Blackwood Brothers concert would be turned over to the families of the victims of the accident. However, anyone who was not satisfied could get their money back. No one stepped forward to request a refund. In the days that followed, local newspapers stated that “All of Chilton County grieves with the families of the three men who died in the airplane crash.”

On July 2, 1954 thousands of mourners gathered at the City Auditorium in Memphis for the funeral service for R.W. Blackwood and Bill Lyles, the largest the city had ever seen. Tennessee Governor Frank Clement, who spoke “as a friend of the singers and not as Governor,” recalled that he had been with the quartet when they made their last public appearance in Memphis. At his request, the mourners sang "Have You Talked to the Man Upstairs?" the song with which they won the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts competition. During the service, the Reverend James F. Hamill, the singer’s pastor, said “a sermon to eulogize Blackwood and Lyles is as unnecessary as improving the beauty of a sunset.” On that same day, the funeral service for John Archie Ogburn, Jr. was held at the Thorsby Baptist Church. He was laid to rest in the Clanton Cemetery.

In the aftermath of the accident, grief overwhelmed the surviving members of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. Feeling as though they had reached the end of their musical journey, James Blackwood stated publically that the quartet would never again perform.  In Chilton County, the future of the Peach Festival was equally in doubt. Organizers expressed concern that the festival would never be held again, especially at the Clanton Airport, scene of the tragic accident.

Yet from the depths of despair came a feeling of renewal and commitment. Five weeks after the accident, emerging from their grief and after having “talked to the man upstairs,” the families of the victims solemnly resolved that their works in gospel singing and civic enterprise would not end with the deaths of R.W. Blackwood, Bill Lyles and Johnny Ogburn, Jr.  On August 4, 1954, in a concert to benefit the families of the victims, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet again performed in the hangar at the Clanton Airport. With Cecil Blackwood and J.D. Sumner stepping in to fill the void, more than 5,000 people attended the concert, the largest crowd to attend a singing event in Alabama. In time, the Blackwood Brothers would receive world-wide acclaim, their name becoming synonymous with gospel music. In Chilton County, the annual Peach Festival remains one of the most eagerly anticipated community events.   

The accident that claimed the lives of R.W. Blackwood, Bill Lyles and Johnny Ogburn has been described as “the crash that changed the course of gospel music.” Though six decades have passed, the memory of that day remains vivid for many residents of Clanton and Chilton County. In June 2001, the Clanton Lions Club erected a pavilion around the memorial that commemorates the victims of the accident. From time to time, visitors gather at the memorial to remember, to pray and to reflect on the simple inscriptions that serve as the legacies of those who perished. A gospel singer for twenty-five years, R.W. Blackwood “Remained faithful to his trust, even unto death.” Bill Lyles “Sang his way into the hearts of millions, ever mindful that his talent came from God.” Young Johnny Ogburn was “Faithful in his love and loyalty to God, his country and his friends.” The inscriptions are brief but the legacies of those who died are everlasting.