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Elrod family continues father's love of aviation

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John Elrod and his family have worked hard to honor captain James Elrod’s legacy by securing a monument that will sit near the crash site where 83 people died on Sept. 9, 1969, including captain Elrod, the pilot of Allegheny Airlines 853. John Elrod helped install the base for the monument that will be unveiled Monday at a memorial service.
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John Elrod remembers his father, Allegheny Airlines captain James Elrod, as a stern man but his love of flying was passed down to his two sons, both pilots.

By JEFF BROWN - jbrown@shelbynews.com

John Elrod was 9 years old and enjoying some post-school cartoons on the television when a newsbreak interrupted to provide details of a plane crash in northwestern Shelby County.

“My mom came in to watch it and you could see the worry on her face,” recalled Elrod of that fateful Sept. 9, 1969, day.

James Elrod was a well-respected pilot for Allegheny Airlines. He had left his family in Plainfield, Indiana, a normality for an airlines pilot, to head to Boston where he would captain flight 853 on its normal route to Baltimore, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and St. Louis.

A knock on the door followed. A fellow Allegheny Airlines pilot lived two houses down and he rushed over to the Elrod household.

“Wow,” said John Elrod, the youngest of James Elrod’s three children with his wife, Margaret, recalling the moment like it was yesterday.

The airliner with 78 passengers and four crew members all died upon impact in a soybean field near London Road on Sept. 9, 1969. Robert Carey, the pilot of the Piper Cherokee that struck the tail of flight 853, also died, marking the worst airline disaster in Indiana history.

On Monday, James Elrod’s three children will be at the crash site to unveil a monument to those that perished that fateful day.

Flying was captain Elrod’s life. And despite the family tragedy, two of his sons and a grandson are also pilots.

Mike Elrod is a commercial pilot for Delta. John Elrod and his son are part of a flying club that owns a Piper Archer kept at Eagle Creek Airport. John’s son currently works for Republic Airlines and is considering getting his commercial license.

“I am hoping,” said John of his son becoming an airlines pilot. “My brother gave him a real good pep talk a few weeks ago.”

John Elrod ran out of money to pursue his dream of flying. He went to Indiana State but the costs of flying and school tuition were burying him.

“Mostly, it was the money issues that I didn’t advance with the flying,” he said. “I went to college for it. I worked my way through school and flying and tuition. I was loaned up to the hilt. I was this close (squeezing two fingers together) to getting my instrument rating.”

After college, John worked for U.S. Air but didn’t like his role with the company.

“It didn’t involve flying,” he said. 

Construction work put money in his pockets in high school and during summers on break from ISU. He recently retired from the carpenter’s union after 30 years of work. Now he has more time to fly – a tribute to his father he supposes.

“He was stern for sure. Old school,” said John of his father. “You were on your best behavior when he was around. He was a southern boy (raised in Georgia). A good, old-fashioned boy that had strong family values.”

James’ wife was a nurse before settling down to raise a family. It was a career choice she returned to after the plane crash.

“She took a job as the school nurse at Plainfield High School,” said John. “She was loved by all. She was a great lady.”

When asked, John recalled having his own harrowing experience in a plane back in his college days.

“I was flying to Columbus, Ohio ... just when I was in the vicinity of the airport, a very loud noise, like a horn going off is the best way to describe it in the cockpit, and all of my instruments were flashing and going crazy,” he said. “I immediately called in a ‘Mayday’ but the radio was out so they couldn’t hear me. So I get into the flight pattern and about the time I turned to final (approach), and I was flashing my lights the whole time ... shortly before I landed I was able to contact the tower and say, ‘Sorry, but my radio was out and I’m coming in.”

He maneuvered the plane over to the maintenance hangar and learned the battery cable insulation had worn away and the battery was grounding out. 

James Elrod set the standard, one his children obviously admired. But they haven’t let an unfortunate event keep them from enjoying the same skies their father called home for many years.

There was just no way they were not going to honor their father’s legacy.