Sunday, February 18, 2024

Feb. 18, 1959: Future Ga. ARNG State Aviation Officer Makes Emergency Landing in Griffin

 By Maj. William Carraway

Historian, Georgia Army National Guard.


Brigadier General Charlie Camp (center) speaks with Master Sgt. Georgie Moore (left) and 1st Lt. Robert Sprayberry (right) beside an L-20
Beaver in January, 1957. Georgia National Guard Archives.

Late in the evening of February 17, 1959, Captain Robert Sprayberry departed the airport in Brunswick, Ga. piloting a Georgia Army National Guard L-20 bound for Marietta. Onboard were two passengers: Lt. Col. Steven Reeves, a personnel officer with the Ga. National Guard’s United States Property and Fiscal Office; and Jimmy Williamson, Mayor of Darien, Georgia.[1] Enroute to Dobbins Air Force Base, the aircraft began experiencing engine trouble. In the desperate minutes that followed, Sprayberry’s training, experience collaborating with the Georgia State Patrol and decision making would be the difference between life and death.


Aviation Career

Sprayberry enlisted as a private in the Atlanta-based Headquarters Battery, 179th Field Artillery Battalion February 7, 1949. Commissioning in April 1952, Sprayberry graduated from the Army Aviation Flight School at Fort Sill, Okla. the following year and was qualified to fly the L-17, L-19 and L-20 aircraft in the Georgia National Guard inventory.[2] One year later, while assigned as an L-19 pilot with the 179th FA BN, Sprayberry assisted the Georgia State Patrol in a search for an escaped convict near Adairsville, Ga.[3]

Georgia National Guard Soldiers of the Rome-based Company E, 122nd Infantry Regiment, 48th Infantry Division, guard Herbert Juelich, who escaped
from U.S. Marshals in North Georgia on August 8, 1953. Photo by Maj. Jack Conrad.

In December 1957, Sprayberry graduated from the U.S. Army Primary Helicopter School at Camp Wolters, Texas and began flying the Georgia National Guard’s newest rotary wing aircraft, the UH-13.[4]

By the time he was promoted to captain July 28, 1958, Sprayberry had flown all fixed and rotary-wing aircraft in the Georgia Army National Guard inventory and regularly flew senior leaders of the Georgia National Guard and civilian leaders.


ATLANTA, September 1958 – Captain Robert Sprayberry (right) at the controls of a Georgia Army National Guard helicopter during Operation Deathless,
 an information campaign conducted with the Georgia State Patrol to reduce traffic fatalities over the Labor Day weekend. Georgia National Guard Archives.

Emergency Landing

As Sprayberry took off from Brunswick airport with Lt. Col. Reeves and Mayor Williamson there were no indicators that the flight would be anything but routine. Sprayberry had flown the single-engine L-20 for more than five years carrying passengers and cargo across the state and southeast region. The weather was fair with an 80 percent moon and scattered clouds. With minimal wind and 10-mile visibility, Sprayberry and his passengers settled in for what should have been a smooth two-hour flight.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Sprayberry in May 1974 at the controls of one an L-20 aircraft like the one he was flying February 18, 1959.
Georgia National Guard Archives.

In the skies over Forsyth, just after midnight on February 18, 1959, Sprayberry’s aircraft developed carburetor trouble and began losing power. Sprayberry radioed an emergency to Georgia National Guard headquarters and contacted the airport in Griffin to request an emergency landing. The Griffin airport radioed back that a power failure at the landing strip made a landing impossible. Thinking quickly, Sprayberry contacted the Georgia State Patrol with whom he had collaborated on several past missions. As he struggled to keep the engine running, Sprayberry requested an emergency landing on the highway north of Griffin. The GSP and Griffin Police Department stopped highway traffic and began setting up a makeshift landing strip lit by police vehicles. For nearly 30 agonizing minutes, Sprayberry labored to keep the craft in the air as the police worked feverishly to clear the road, mark a bridge crossing, and secure an ambulance and fire truck for the scene. As Sprayberry was on final approach the aircraft engine died. Nevertheless, Sprayberry skillfully landed the L-20 which came to a stop short of the bridge just inside the Griffin city limits.

Sprayberry and his passengers spent the night in Griffin while mechanics traveled from Atlanta to repair the aircraft. The crew made swift work of the repairs and Sprayberry was able to take off from the highway shortly after 11:00 am in a strong crosswind. He landed briefly at Griffin airport to take on fuel then continued to Dobbins Air Force Base.[5]


Later Career

Sprayberry remained in the Georgia National Guard. In 1972 he was appointed to serve as the state aviation officer. [6] Over his long career, Sprayberry served as the pilot for two Georgia governors. He retired as a colonel after 33 years of military service.

Colonel Robert Sprayberry with Brig. Gen. Holden West, commander of the Ga. Army National Guard in 1976. Georgia National Guard Archives.


[1] “Crippled Plane Brought in on Cleared Griffin Four Lane,” Atlanta Constitution, February 19, 1959, 32.

[2] “Guard Panorama,” The Georgia Guardsman, May, June 1957, 20.

[3] “Rome Guardsmen Capture Fugitive Killers, The Georgia Guardsman, July-August 1953, 6-7.

[4] The Georgia Guardsman, Jan, Feb 1958, 6.

[5] “Pilot Saves Craft: Plane Lands on Highway Inside Griffin City Limits, The Macon News, February 19, 1959, 3/

[6] “Sprayberry New State Avn Officer,” The Georgia Guardsman, Jan-Feb, 1972, 2.

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