A Tribute to Lauch Faircloth

Published August 22, 2013

By Brad Crone

by Brad Crone, Campaign Connections and NC SPIN panelist, August 22, 2013.

Thursday, August 22 marks the 30th anniversary of the day when Lauch Faircloth saved my life and the lives of Leighton Elliott and Manuel Sowers.

Mr. Faircloth was running for Governor and had been campaigning in Burnsville late that afternoon.  Pat Greene and Bobby Grindstaff had met us at the Marion Airport, driven up the mountain in Avery County and had taken us back to Marion so we could get back to Raleigh.

It was just around 10 o’clock at night. While we were away it had rained on the grassy runway at Shiflet Field.  Mary Clara Bear, our campaign scheduler, had chosen to fly into Shiflet Field because it had operation runway lights and a rotating beacon. Brad Regan Airport in Burnsville apparently didn’t have operational lights that time.  So it was Shiflet Field in Marion.

I was working as Faircloth’s driver and aide-de-camp.  I had been hired by Bill Pully and John Thomas Talton.  It was a great job, the best job of any campaign to be honest.

We loaded into the Cessna 414, a twin engine prop that could seat up to eight people. On this trip it was Leighton Elliot, captain and Manuel Sowers, co-pilot with just Mr. Faircloth and myself being the two passengers.

“I’ve never spent the night before in Marion,” Mr. Faircloth exclaimed as we settled into our seats.  “Everything is fine Lauch, we walked the runway and it’s okay,” said Mr. Elliot, a decorated World War II and Korean War pilot.  “Fine, let’s head to Raleigh,” said Mr. Faircloth.

Those were the last words spoken before we flew into the mountain side doing about 130 mph, catching on fire and flipping three times along the tree canopy landing upright in Lake James.

The next words spoken came from the pilot, “Everyone out, we’ve crashed.”

I could only think in my mind, “No Kidding!” but I used some different vocabulary.

We had fire coming through the manifold and the cabin was quickly becoming filled with smoke and flames.

Stunned from the violent crash, Mr. Faircloth had the bearing to get up and go for the door.  It was a two-hatch door with a small window opening at the top and a larger set of steps on the lower side. I just a step behind him, trying to wiggle open the emergency exit next to his seat.

It was adrenaline no doubt, but Mr. Faircloth forced open the wrecked hatch. In just a short glance, I looked at him and then proceeded to jump out, hands first.  When I hit the water, I knew I was at least safe, even if I did have on a suit and wing-tips.

Mr. Faircloth joked, “Brad your big butt when through that little opening like one of the Great Wallendas.”  My only retort, “It wasn’t time for protocol.”

Mr. Faircloth then kicked the bottom steps and proceeded down them, getting a real surprise when he hit water.  His tie had been caught in the wreckage so he was noosed as we left the plane.  He went under water and then came back up trying to figure out why he was choking.  By this time, gasoline had gotten on the water and was on fire.  Mr. Faircloth was not only having to loosen his collar, he was having to fight the fire around him.  That’s how he got burned on his neck, back, right arm and hand.

Leighton Elliott followed Mr. Faircloth and went to help him.  Manuel Sowers was the last person out of the plane, he went to the tail, holding on for dear life. He announced that he couldn’t swim.  The fire engulfed the plane – making a big swoosh as flames and smoke shot high into the valley.

I went over and calmed Manuel down, took his arm and swam with him to the shore where Mr. Faircloth and Mr. Elliott were sitting.  We watched the plane burn, listening in the background a series of sirens that were rushing to our aid.

There was one thing for certain we were going spending the night in Marion.

It was the first night after cheating death. It was a night that we probably should have never gotten.  One little difference in any aspect of the crash and it would have been fatal.  If Mr. Faircloth hadn’t gotten that tiny top door open, none of us would have survived.

I’m very loyal to Lauch Faircloth.  At 21 years of age, he taught me many lessons on North Carolina business, history and politics.  But he really taught me the value of living and the understanding of my own mortality.  I learned the lesson that tomorrow is never assured and that life does carry on.

So, on this 30th anniversary of our plane crash, I salute Lauch Faircloth for saving four lives that night. Every day since has been a good day.

August 22, 2013 at 6:00 pm
dj anderson says:

Sweet story. Bad luck to crash, but good luck to survive. Brad Crone is loyal for a reason, I see, but loyal. That's a good thing. Wonder how the pilot hit the mountain? Mechanical or pilot error, I want to know.