In the early afternoon of June 22, 1949, Frank Goodwin, business manager for the Hull-Dobbs automobile company, boarded an American Airlines Convair passenger plane at the Memphis Municipal Airport.
As Flight 402 waited on the runway Goodwin felt something was wrong, “but it didn’t worry me much,” he later stated. However, when the right engine motor sputtered then shut down just after takeoff, Captain Ed Hatch and First Officer Norman E. Lundeen worriedly looked for a suitable place to land. The resulting crash was not only one of the worst aircraft accidents in Memphis history but also one of the most miraculous.
Dodging TVA transmission lines, Captain Hatch spied an open field 50 feet south of Willow Road and started his descent. Meanwhile, stewardess Yvonne Hanavan sat in the jump seat looking out the rear porthole when she saw trees rather than blue sky. There was no time to warn passengers, but they instinctively hunkered down in their seats as the craft flopped into an empty clearing, plowed through mushy earth and came to rest near a tree. C. C. Trevett, an employee of the nearby Cherokee Golf Course, watched the craft fall to earth.
“The plane landed on its belly with its nose jammed against a big tree and smoke pouring from the two engines,” described Trevett.
Inside the craft, passengers and crew were buffeted about the cockpit and cabin. Hanavan remembered that the “sudden stop threw me forward and that was a lucky thing because the buffet of heavy metal coffee containers fell down on the jump seat.”
Picking herself up, the stewardess ordered two men to open an emergency window while she pulled people from the debris. According to one witness, Hanavan was “the bravest girl I ever saw. She stayed in the plane after its engine was blazing and the pilot had ordered her out. She turned back all the seats after that to see that the passengers were all out.”
Some made it out through the emergency window while others like Mrs. Gordon Crocker of Englewood, Tenn., escaped through a gaping hole in the bottom of the fuselage. Caked in blood and mud, the survivors found themselves on the west side of Getwell Road in a large field not far from the Kennedy Army Hospital and only a few miles from the airport.
W. E. Dawkins and his wife were standing in front of their WeOna Grocery Store at 1584 Getwell when the plane crashed 100 feet from their doorstep. Stepping back into the store, Mrs. Dawkins called the fire department while W. E. Dawkins ran towards the crash and was soon joined by S. M. Pierce and John H. Whitaker.
“We quickly beat out the windows with our fists and sticks,” explained Dawkins, who then joined with others in removing passengers from the wreckage. Ambulances transported the injured to area hospitals while fire fighters extinguished the flaming engines.
The skilled flying of Hatch and Lundeen combined with the bravery of Dawkins, Hanavan, Pierce, Whitaker and the fire crews snatched a miracle from the twisted wreckage by saving the lives of all 41 travelers.
As passenger Harry Rosenbaum explained, “It was an act of God that we came through it safe.”
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library