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DUNNAVANT, John Lindsey, 14 Nov 1951 - 4 Jan 1978. " Capt. U.S. Army 326 Med BN. Ft. Campbell, Ky., Died while on a crash rescue in Great Smokey Mts." Military marker: "Air Ambulance Helicopter Pilot" section E 4939/4940

Sheila Holden
"Mayday! Mayday!"

Army Capt. John L. Dunnavant grabbed the controls of the Huey helicopter he was piloting before broadcasting two more "maydays" over the airwaves. He and the eight-member crew aboard HEL 218 had just heard a loud pop as the Army helicopter hovered near Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains. Dunnavant and the crew were on a search-and-rescue mission on that fateful day of Jan. 4, 1978. The captain and the seven others were helping in the search for a white Cessina 421 Golden Eagle. There were five passengers and a small dog aboard when the eight-seat, twin-engine airplane went down.

HEL 218 was flying approximately 500 feet above the ground when the Huey developed engine trouble.

The Early Years

Dunnavant was born Nov. 15, 1951 in Pulaski. He entered Middle Tennessee State University in 1969, where he pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.

When Dunnavant's older brother, Jimmy, also a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, was killed in Vietnam in the summer of 1970, brother John felt a need to continue the military duty his brother had begun. He joined the ROTC program at MTSU and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Medical Service Corps of the U.S. Army upon graduating Aug. 23, 1973.

After officer basic training, he was accepted into the Army's flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala. The U.S. Army MEDEVAC pilot was assigned to the Air Ambulance Platoon, 326th Medical Battalion, Fort Campbell, Ky. This battalion was a military assistance to safety and traffic unit that provided emergency medical assistance to civilian communities in times of disaster as well as to civilian victims of traffic accidents and other emergencies.

Dunnavant met the former Beverly Greene, also of Giles County, while at MTSU, and they married.

Thirty years later, tears flow as she recalls January 1978.

"This is a day that I have re-lived in my mind over and over," she said.

The phone calls, the wait and then the sound of traffic coming down the rarely-traveled country road will forever be ingrained in her mind.

Back to Jan. 2, 1978

Capt. John Dunnavant had just returned to Fort Campbell from 12 days of leave for Christmas at home with is family in the Stella community. He was on-call.

The search-and-rescue mission call was made and the crew left late in the evening of Jan. 3, 1978. Years later Beverly would be told that it was "a weird night." A crew member told her that usually the men making a mission would be talking, sometimes "cutting up." This trip, however, was very quiet and solemn, and instead of following the usual flight schedule, the trip was made by the helicopter following the interstate system from Kentucky to the Smoky Mountains. Also, one of the flight crew who was scheduled to go was sick and was substituted with another. Once there, another unscheduled crew member joined the men on HEL 218, of which Dunnavant piloted.

Dunnavant and his crew were ordered to Cade's Cove because their resources and expertise were needed to help find and rescue a family of five whose small plane had crashed while returning from a Christmas trip. Unfortunately, all the family members were found dead after rescuers located the crashed airplane.

Waiting its turn to land at Parsons Bald, where crew members would be dropped off for their hike to the crash site, HEL 218 developed engine trouble. Crew members in the other two aircraft watched as Dunnavant and co-pilot Capt. Terrance Woolever tried to find to a clear place to land, but they couldn't make it to Parsons Bald. The Huey's rotor blades sliced a way through the tree tops and it plunged to the ground, nose first although the pilot tried to put the tail in the trees first to reduce speed and impact.

Dunnavant, 27; Woolever, 31; Army crew chief Sgt. Floyd Smith, 27; and Lt. Col. Ray Maynard, 62, of the Tennessee Civil Air Patrol were killed. Surviving were Fort Campbell soldiers Sgt. Christopher Wyman and Sgt. Phil Thurlow and two park rangers, Bill Acree and David Harbin.

The whole account of the mission is recounted in the book by authors Jeff Wadley and Dwight McCarter, "Mayday! Mayday! Aircraft Crashes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 1920-2000" published by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville. Dunnavant's widow, Beverly, loaned the book from which the above information was taken.

The book also includes another rescue mission trip Dunnavant and the same crew from Fort Campbell made four weeks before the fatal January 1978 mission, when young siblings, a brother and sister, were rescued from an airplane crash. Also in the airplane were their father and sister, who were killed.

Beverly said there at least two more books that include the details of the January 1978 crash, but she has yet to find them.

Captain Dunnavant is buried in Lynnwood Cemetery in Lynnville beside his brother, Jimmy.

Courtney Rachel Dunnavant was 2 and-one-half years old and Lyndsey Carol Dunnavant was 5 months old when their father died. Beverly has since married John Murrey, and they are the parents of Sara Katherine.

"When things like this happen, you wonder if life will go on," Beverly Murrey said. "It does, and the girls and I have survived."

Photos by Wayne Austin 5 May 2009. Information sent in by Mary Bob McClain Richardson 1 Jul 2009.