Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Truth is Stranger than fiction: The story of Reed Pigman

The Beatles traveled back and forth through the United States during the 1964 summer tour in an American Flyers Airplane  Electra, N13H.  American Flyers Airlines had been founded in 1949 by a Texan named Reed Pigman.  Pigman was quite the pioneer in early aviation  and helped build airplanes during World War II.       Reed Pigman was the not Beatles' pilot while they flew on the Electra, but he sure was proud of have the Fab 4 on his airplane.

The AFA Electra N13H

However, Mr. Pigman was the Beatles pilot during one part of the tour.    As you will recall, after the Beatles left Houston,  Ruby Hickman arranged with her boss (Mr. Pigman himself) for the Beatles not to go to New York City on their day off as planned, but to have a nice day of rest and relaxation at the Pigman Ranch in southern Missouri.     The Electra landed in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas and the Beatles boarded a twin engine-seven seater plane with Reed Pigman flying the craft.    It was a scary flight for the Beatles, Brian and Ruby as George Harrison explained in the Anthology:
We flew from Dallas to an intermediate airport where Pigman met us in a little plane with the one wing, on top, and with one or maybe two engines. It was so like Buddy Holly, that one; that was probably the closest we came to that sort of musicians' death. I don't mean it nearly crashed because it didn't, but the guy had a little map on his knee, with a light, as we were flying along and he was saying, 'Oh, I don't know where we are,' and it's pitch black and there are mountains all around and he's rubbing the windscreen trying to get the mist off. Finally he found where we were and we landed in a field with tin cans on fire to guide us in.

Reed was able to maneuver the plane through the difficult conditions and the Beatles landed safely and enjoyed their time with the Pigman family and their ranch.

This Curt Gunther photo shows Ringo with the Pigman family at the ranch

However,  tragedy was right around the corner.    On April 22, 1966 Reed Pigman was flying the same airplane the Beatles used during the summer of 1964, the AFA Electra  N13H,    He was taking some young army recruits to Georgia.     It was a rainy, foggy night and Pigman was set to land in Oklahoma for refueling when he at the age of 59 suffered  a major heart attack.    The plane crashed near Ardmore, Oklahoma killing 83 of the 96 on board, including Reed Pigman.  

It is a very sad ending and yet an eerie one when you consider how George Harrison was scared of flying and considered his flight with Pigman as his "Buddy Holly moment."  

Reed Pigman and stewardesses just a month before the tragic accident


  1. I never knew about The Beatles' wild plane ride to a Missouri ranch where they had to land at night by the light of tin cans illuminated by candles! That's a scary story from George I can relate to, having once boarded a flimsy old plane that tangled with a thunderstorm. Thanks for that tale (though what a tragic ending for their pilot and all those young men...)

  2. We consider Reed Pigman to be a murderer. He lied about his medical condition, which included diabetes and a heart condition, to obtain his flight medical. The medical examiner found nitroglycerine in his blood. He had no business flying and he knew it.
    American Flyers Airlines was based in Armore OK. The flight plan called for a refueling stop in Ardmore before proceeding to Georgia. All the soldiers on board had completed their advanced basic training at Fort Ord in California and were on their way to Fort Benning GA for Airborne training. It was raining in Ardmore and Reed called a missed approach and decided to go around for another try. He had a heart attack and slumped over the controls. The copilot did not have chance to try and gain control before the plane slammed into a hill on a cattle ranch. Eighty three of the ninety eight people on board died, including my wife's brother, aged 17.

    1. Interestingly enough Pigman’s son and the airline company he is involved in today makes no mention of his dad’s culpability and/or the 1966 crash on two major websites; with George Harrison’s Anthology reflections and the report on the cause of the crash it seems that the Beatles were lucky in 1964 avoiding plane issues and Reed Pigman was very cavalier regarding his piloting ability! What a sad and avoidable tragedy for all involved!

  3. my father had just started as a Captain with that airline the year before the crash. I was 11 years old when the crash occurred. My Dad, brother, sister and a few of her friends had all gone to the movies to see Don Knotts in "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" (terrific) and when we got home our front door was open and my Mom and a woman two doors down who also worked for American Flyers were running back and forth as we pulled up. She told us the news. The next morning the same inclement weather was still in the area and I vividly remember riding with my Dad to the crash site. The authorities wouldn't let us in. My parents attended 4 funerals in one day. I was the altar boy at one of them, it was for the Engineer Anthony Pica. It's amazing I still remember all of it. Interestingly after all the horrid details of the owner and his paying off a Doctor in Colorado I believe my Dad decided he didn't want to work with them anymore and took a job with Capitol Airlines (another charter) where he worked until his retirement in 1984.