The Day the Music Died

On the 3rd of February, 1959, rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson – along with their 21 year old pilot, Roger Peterson – were killed in a V-tail Beechcraft Bonanza after it impacted the ground in bad weather near Clear Lake, Iowa.

The day came to be known as “the day the music died” after the words were immortalized by Don Maclean in American Pie. Maclean has said that the song symbolized a “loss of innocence” of the early rock-and-roll generation.

The trio were touring by bus as part of “The Winter Dance Party Tour”, covering 24 cities in 3 weeks. Uncomfortable sub-zero temperatures and slow travel conditions were aggravated by a heating failure in the bus; serious enough to cause one of the musicians to develop frostbite. Frustrated and tired, Holly made the fateful decision to charter a single engine Beechcraft Bonanza from Dwyer Flying Services located on the Mason City Airport. The two-hour flight to Fargo (Hector Airport), North Dakota (the nearest city to Moorhead, their next stop) cost $36 per person (about $300 in today’s money). The chartered service would assure Holly a quick journey, and provide him sufficient time to rest during the gruelling schedule.

In a fateful game of coin-toss, Valens won a seat on the aircraft from musician Tommy Allsup, and The Big Bopper, suffering from flu, had secured his seat from Waylon Jennings (who died in 2002 aged 64).

Learning that Jennings wasn’t flying in the aircraft Holly quipped “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up”, to which Jennings responded, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes”, a humorous but ill-fated response that would, according to his biography, haunt him for the rest of his life.

The nature of the crash wasn’t unlike many that proceeded it. Sadly, and despite knowledge of the dangers associated with flying into marginal VMC conditions, many have and will continue to make the same error of judgement that saw N3794N crash just minutes after takeoff.

The wreckage of N3794N

Peterson had obtained a route weather forecast around 5:30 in the afternoon, and again shortly before departure, and then again while taxying for departure. Despite what might be seen as prudent actions by the pilot, his blind faith in weather reports from a region well known for its propensity to quickly change is disturbing… particularly since the cloud base was already reported as lowering, the pressure was dropping, and there was already significant snowfall at Minneapolis. A pilot familiar with local conditions should have surely expected to encounter adverse weather enroute.

Two flash advisory reports were issued by the U.S Weather Bureau indicating a fast moving cold front with snow, reduced visibility (2 miles), and gusty (read: turbulent) flight conditions, but it was never determined if the adverse weather was passed onto the pilot, or if he received the information himself.

In spite of knowledge of the lowering cloud base with freezing snow reported enroute – and regardless of what information was provided to him by an advisory service (a pilot always maintains full authority and responsibility over the disposition of his aircraft) – Peterson nonetheless continued into the blackness of a snow-saturated night sky with none of the visual cues that are expected from and required for VFR flight.

Like many pilots before him – and like the thousands of ill-fated decisions made after this one – the pilot was likely biased, and he continued flight into conditions that were outside of his personal and certified limitations. Likely contributing towards the decision to continue was Peterson’s former IMC training; he had passed an Instrument written but had failed a check ride 9-months prior… with the “completed” training presumably contributing to his overconfidence (a well-established bias where “someone’s subjective confidence in their judgement is reliably greater than their objective accuracy, especially when confidence is relatively high”). With just 711 hours under his belt, Peterson sat virtually in the middle of a “danger zone” where confidence exceeds reality, and his youthful inexperience, coupled with the commercial pressures of transporting rock-stars, may have impaired his ability to think rationally.

The NTSB (or Civil Aeronautics Board at the time) reported that Peterson had conducted his IMC training in aircraft with conventional artificial horizons (a primary instrument to indicate aircraft attitude), while the aircraft used for the charter had a Sperry (F3) Attitude gyro with a differing pictorial representation; the free-floating movements of the stabilized sphere are behind a miniature aircraft that presents pitch information with a sensing exactly opposite to the conventional instrument the pilot was more familiar with. Even if Peterson was in fact capable of operating into the deteriorating weather, it’s possible that he wasn’t qualified or capable of operating with the installed instrumentation into real IFR weather (or even a condition of darkness).

Peterson communicated to the tower while taxing for takeoff advising that he would pass on flight plan details after takeoff. To most seasoned pilots this indicates that the pilot was (anecdotally) saving time… suggesting that he was aware that time and weather were conspiring against him (without historical consideration to the operation). Why else would he load himself up with tasks airborne that could easily be accomplished on the ground? Either he was saving time or simply exercising poor airmanship.

A company representative watched Peterson depart off a climbing left turn to 800 feet to join a north-westerly track. When about five miles from the airport, Peterson’s colleague saw the tail light of the aircraft gradually descend until out of sight. When no in-flight departure report was made, attempts were made to contact Peterson without success.

After departing into the deafness of the dull, icy black sky, we can only speculate on what exactly happened next.

In the 1990s, the University of Illinois researched the time it took for VFR pilots to succumb to spatial disorientation and lose control over an aircraft. It was determine that, on average, untrained pilots will come to grief in just 178 seconds (just 3 minutes). Sadly, Peterson met the same fate within the timeframe that the research determined.

The official report report reads as follows:

Although the aircraft was badly damaged, certain important facts were determined. There was no fire. All components were accounted fro at the wreckage site. There was no evidence of inflight structural failure or failure of the controls. The landing gear was retracted at the time of impact. The damaged engine was dismantled and examined; there was no evidence of engine malfunctioning or failure in flight. Both blades of the propeller were broken at the hub, giving evidence that the engine was producing power when ground impact occurred. The hub pitch-change mechanisms indicated that the blade pitch was in the cruise range.

The pilot presumably flew into complete darkness void of any discernable horizon or visual cues. The absence of any visual reference, overcast sky, and falling snow means that “requirement for control of the aircraft solely by reference to flight instruments can be predicated with virtual certainty.”

The gusty conditions and associated turbulence would have caused instrument fluctuations that would have made instrument flying difficult – even for a seasoned IFR pilot. These conditions were likely aggravated by the unfamiliarity of the artificial horizon that has long confused pilots transitioning onto the rather abstract (and now rather antiquated) presentation. Controllability issues commonly associated with the V-tail Bonanza in turbulence may have also had an impact on Peterson’s ability to maintain control.

The nature of the wreckage is consistent with loss of orientation leading to uncontrolled flight. The engine was determined to be serviceable, and both blades of the propeller were broken at the hub, giving evidence that the engine was producing power when ground impact occurred. The hub pitch-change mechanisms indicated that the blade pitch was in the cruise range (validated by the RPM gauge stuck on 2200RPM). It was determined that the aircraft struck the ground in a “…steep turn but with the nose lowered only slightly, indicating that some control was being effected at the time”.

The aircraft was located the following morning in an open, flat field covered in about 4 inches of snow, with parts of the wreckage scattered over a distance of 540 feet. All occupants were deceased and the aircraft was demolished. The three passengers were thrown from the aircraft with extensive injuries.

Disturbing image shows J.P Richardson's ("Big Bopper") body across the fence. Buddy Holly's body is to the left in the photo. Richie Valens' body is nearest the camera. The pilot's body, Roger Peterson, is in the aircraft.

A Coronial Report graphically details the severity of Holly’s injuries. It states that his skull was “split medially in the forehead, extending into the lower region”…. with “… half of the brain tissue element absent”. Additional injuries sustained include crushing of his chest, multiple breaks and fractures, and multiple lacerations. Other reports tend to mirror that of Holly’s.

Extract from Holly's Coroner Report.

What wasn’t considered in the official report was the potential for the aircraft to be overloaded. By our own calculations, four middle-weight people in a V-tail Bonanza with the required fuel (plus the necessary reserves given forecast snow at the destination) may have put the machine on the maximum permissible takeoff weight. Had additional reserves been loaded it’s possible that the aircraft was well and truly over the maximum takeoff weight. If baggage was carried (and there’s no evidence of this in the accident report or photographs, other than the mention of a briefcase in the Coroner’s report) it’s highly possible that the aircraft was loaded with an aft center of gravity – something that may have severely affected controllability of the aircraft after takeoff. In our own history flying the V35, one could barely carry 4 passengers with sufficient fuel for a sortie over Sydney Harbour.

A comment in the official report states that “a hearing deficiency of [Peterson’s] right ear was found and because of this he was given a flight test. A waiver noting this hearing deficiency was issued November 29, 1958” – but the nature of the hearing deficiency isn’t discussed beyond a transient remark. At least a few reputable authors, including Larry Lehmer in his book “The Day the Music Died” have stated that they believed the pilot suffered vertigo. Even if this were not the case, and even if his hearing issues didn’t impair Peterson’s ability to operate the aircraft safety, he was invariably played like a fiddle by the array of overwhelming sensory illusions that can easily disorientate an untrained pilot.

Like all accidents involving people with whom others form an emotional attachment, the incident isn’t without alternate arguments and “conspiracies”. A gun that belonged to Buddy Holly was found two months after the crash fuelling rumors in the years afterwards that the pilot was shot and, without supporting evidence, Richardson survived the crash and made attempts to get help. The rumour isn’t worthy of mention if it weren’t for J.P Richardson’s son, Jay Richardson, requesting his father’s body be exhumed in March of 2007 to determine the veracity of such claims.

Many pilots argue that the crash is simply a case of Peterson forced to fly lower after departure to avoid IMC, and simply impacting terrain while in controlled flight (CFIT), despite the “stuck” instrumentation suggesting a bank angle of 90° and high rate of descent (3000fpm) at the time of impact.

The NTSB has taken some of these claims seriously and almost reopened the investigation in 2015. One of the most influential theories came from L. J. Coon, a retired pilot from New England, who believed that the conclusion of the 1959 investigation was inaccurate, and required additional investigation into the serviceability of the right rudder.

Some researchers have suggested that fuel starvation had to be considered due to the lack of fire on impact. This theory is without supporting physical evidence.

There are dozens of lessons to be learned from this horrific crash. Sadly, and despite countless examples just like this one that most pilots are familiar with, a pilot today will fly into conditions for which he’s not qualified. For many of them, it’s a death sentence they could have easily avoided.

Tommy Allsup opened a club named “The Head’s Up Saloon”, a tribute to the coin toss that saved his life. Little did he know that Professor James Reason would probably describe him – in clinical terms – as a piece of cheese that didn’t quite line up with the other holes on that day.

The 3rd February, 1959: The day the music died. And the day a broken bus heater killed four men.

References:

(May not be immediately available for download).

  • Official Civil Aeronautics Board Report – Download.
  • Coroners Investigation- Download.
  • Death Certificates- Download.
  • Buddy Holly Coroner Report – Download.
  • Richie Valens Coroner Report – Download.
  • Roger Peterson (Pilot) Coroner Report – Download.
  • J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson Coroner Report – Download.

Shortt URL for this post:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *