On the Wings of a Hero
For sixty eight minutes, an American Airlines twin-engine Convair circled in the skies above Chicago. With his plane's fuel nearly exhausted, jet airliner pilot Clafton Barron had to make an emergency landing and make one soon. Barron and his crew struggled mightily to release the right main landing gear, which has been stuck in the upright position.
Earlier in the day of November 9, 1954, passengers boarded the doomed plane in Fort Worth, Texas for the relatively short flight to Chicago. Along the way, the plane stopped in Springfield, Missouri to pick up more flyers, including Mrs. Shirley Stratton, wife of Illinois governor William G. Stratton. It was about five minutes until four o'clock in the afternoon, when the pilot Barron, based out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, but a native of Dublin, Georgia, radioed air traffic controllers in Chicago that one of his landing gears was stuck and wouldn't drop down into its landing position. Barron got Capt. Fred Bailey on the radio and went through a series of routine measures to lower the right wheels.
After twenty minutes of futile efforts, Bailey directed Barron and his co-pilot H.L. Henderson to fly north of the city to Glenview Naval Air Station, where there would be a crash and fire crew standing by. Gov. Stratton stayed in contact with airport officials from his Chicago offices on LaSalle Street. By 4:30, Barron reported that he had about 65 gallons of fuel left - maybe enough to keep flying for about 30 minutes. "I decided that the best way to keep everyone calm was to tell them what was wrong and how I intended to overcome the trouble," Barron recalled.
Barron lowered the Convair's flaps and began his descent. Approaching low from the south, Barron attempted to tilt the right wing higher to keep it off the ground upon contact with the runway. As the plane lost speed, the right wing dropped dangerously and deadly toward the ground below.
The crew and passengers braced for a crash. Barron pulled the flaps all the way and gently edged the left and nose wheels to the ground. For four thousand excruciating feet, the crippled plane slid down the runway until it spun around at a right angle to a full stop. Stewardess Anita Roberson had calmly and brilliantly prepared the passengers on the proper evacuation procedures. All were safe, breathing, but barely. Within a minute, Navy crash crews had ripped open every door and hatch from the plane and retrieved everyone from the wreckage.
Mrs. Statton and the other passengers praised Capt. Barron for his calm demeanor during the descent and especially for saving their lives. Thirty seven men, including an Illinois state senator and three women, made it to safety, though they were visibly shaken as they boarded emergency vehicles.
Capt. Hugh Clafton Barron followed the manual and performed a successful emergency landing in his first try, well almost. 'Bo Peep" Knight was riding his truck on a Dublin road a little more than twenty years earlier on March 31, 1934. With Wansley Hughes and Bob Gentry aboard, Clafton Barron was taking off in his prop plane. Arthur Rowe and R.T. Smith saw Barron's plane wasn't going to clear their truck. They jumped out to save their lives. One of the plane's wings struck the truck and tipped it over killing "Bo Peep" on the spot. The plane spun and came to a stop when it struck a wire fence about thirty yards away. Barron and his passengers limped away from the crash. Poor "Bo Peep" was laid to rest days later.
Barron's crash on the outskirts of Dublin in 1934 didn't stop him from flying. He loved to fly and kept on flying. His kinsman W.H. "Bud" Barron went on to become one of Dublin's and Georgia's most celebrated flyers. Bud Barron was known to have flown the second most miles of any Army Air Corps pilot in World War II. Clafton Barron took a job as a commercial airline pilot with American Airlines in 1942.
On August 4, 1955, just eight months after his first crash landing in Chicago, Barron piloted his American Airline plane off the runway at Springfield, Missouri, where his former plane had developed landing gear problems back in November. Twenty-seven passengers and two other crew members were aboard. They had taken off from Tulsa, Oklahoma bound for New York City. Aboard were eight women, two children and a Catholic priest and missionary, the Rev. George Crock. Daveron and Robert Galloway were traveling with their mother Betty to join their father Robert Galloway in his new job in Jordan as a community development adviser.
Just a few minutes after takeoff, the forty-five-year old Capt. Barron radioed a "mayday" signal to the St. Louis Airport that he had one engine on fire. For thirty minutes Barron and his first officer William G. Gates valiantly fought to glide his damaged plane to a nearby military airstrip. Unlike his successful crash landing in Chicago, this situation was different, completely different. His plane was on fire and falling fast. Stewardess Thelma Ballard did all she could to comfort the terrified passengers.
Witnesses at Fort Leonard Wood saw the plane as its glided toward the runway some two hundred to five hundred feet above the ground. It appeared at first that the plane would make it to safety, but all of sudden there were muffled explosions. Parts and eventually the wings dropped off the plane as it tumbled for a quarter of a mile before it disappeared into a woody ravine only a half a mile from the edge of the landing strip and possible safety. It was the third time in less than eight months that an American Convair out of Springfield crashed. Previously in March, thirteen were killed and twenty-two were injured in the only crash Barron was not involved in.
Rescue workers, thwarted by a dense underbrush of vines, scrubby trees and brambles and the intense flames emanating from the plane, desperately tried to rescue the passengers and crew. All of thirty people aboard perished inside the inferno.
Captain Hugh Clafton Barron was buried in Northview Cemetery. He was born to William J. and Ella May Hughes Barron of Dublin on Christmas Eve 1909. He married his wife Margaret in 1928 and for a time lived with their daughter Maggie in a house at 318 Rowe Street in Dublin. After he graduated from high school, Clafton worked as a delivery clerk for the post office.
Clafton Barron may have died in a plane crash, but he died as a hero, sixty years ago today. During the last thirty minutes of his life and with his very last breath, Barron fought to keep his plane flying, trying to save the other twenty nine souls aboard. And, those forty two other persons who survived the Chicago crash landing owe their lives and the lives of their descendants to the brave and the dauntless, Captain Hugh Clafton Barron.