Vintage: The Day the Music Died
On 3 February 1959, American rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and "The Big Bopper" JP Richardson were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, together with pilot Roger Peterson. The event later became known as "The Day the Music Died", after singer-songwriter Don McLean referred to it as such in his 1971 song "American Pie". At the time, Holly and his band, consisting of Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup and Carl Bunch, were playing on the ‘Winter Dance Party’ tour across the Midwest. Rising artists Valens, Richardson and Dion and the Belmonts had joined the tour as well. The long journeys between venues on board the cold, uncomfortable tour buses adversely affected the performers, with cases of flu and even frostbite. After stopping at Clear Lake to perform and frustrated by such conditions, Holly chose to charter a plane to reach their next venue in Moorhead, Minnesota. Richardson, suffering from flu, swapped places with Jennings, taking his seat on the plane, while Allsup lost his seat to Valens on a coin toss.
Soon after take-off, late at night and in poor, wintry weather conditions, the pilot lost control of the light aircraft, a Beechcraft Bonanza, which subsequently crashed into a cornfield. Everyone on board was killed. The event has since been mentioned in various songs and films. A number of monuments have been erected at the crash site and in Clear Lake, where an annual memorial concert is also held at the Surf Ballroom, the venue that hosted the artists' last performance.
After the show ended, Anderson drove Holly, Valens and Richardson to Mason City Municipal Airport. The weather at the time of departure was reported as light snow, a ceiling of 3 000 feet (900m) AMSL with sky obscured, visibility six miles (10km) and winds from 20 to 30mph (32 to 48km/h). Although deteriorating weather was reported along the planned route, the weather briefings Peterson received failed to relay the information.
The plane took off normally from runway 17 (today's runway 18) at 00h55 Central Time on Tuesday, 3 February 1959. Dwyer witnessed the take-off from a platform outside the control tower. He was able to see clearly the aircraft's tail light for most of the brief flight, which started with an initial left turn onto a north-westerly heading and a climb to 800 feet (240m). The tail light was then observed gradually descending until it disappeared. Around 1h00, when Peterson failed to make the expected radio contact, repeated attempts to establish communication were made, at Dwyer's request, by the radio operator but they were all unsuccessful.
Later that morning, Dwyer, having heard no word from Peterson since his departure, took off in another airplane to retrace Peterson’s planned route. Within minutes, at around 9h35, he spotted the wreckage less than six miles (10km) north-west of the airport. The sheriff's office, alerted by Dwyer, dispatched Deputy Bill McGill, who drove to the crash site, a cornfield belonging to Albert Juhl.
The Bonanza had impacted terrain at high speed, estimated to have been around 170mph (270km/h), banked steeply to the right and in a nose-down attitude. The right wing tip had struck the ground first, sending the aircraft cartwheeling across the frozen field for 540 feet (160m), before coming to rest against a wire fence at the edge of Juhl's property. The bodies of Holly and Valens had been ejected from the torn fuselage and lay near the plane's wreckage. Richardson's body had been thrown over the fence and into the cornfield of Juhl's neighbour Oscar Moffett, while Peterson's body was entangled in the wreckage. With the rest of the entourage en route to Minnesota, Anderson, who had driven the party to the airport and witnessed the plane's take-off, had to identify the bodies of the musicians. County coroner Ralph Smiley certified that all four victims died instantly, citing the cause of death as "gross trauma to brain" for the three artists and "brain damage" for the pilot.
The official investigation was carried out by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB, precursor to the NTSB). It emerged that Peterson had over four years of flying experience, of which one was with Dwyer Flying Service and had accumulated 711 flying hours, of which 128 were on Bonanzas. He had also logged 52 hours of instrument flight training, although he had passed only his written examination and was not yet qualified to operate in weather that required flying solely by reference to instruments. He and Dwyer Flying Service itself were certified to operate only under visual flight rules, which essentially require that the pilot must be able to see where he is going. However, on the night of the accident, visual flight would have been virtually impossible due to the low clouds, the lack of a visible horizon and the absence of ground lights over the sparsely populated area. Furthermore, Peterson, who had failed an instrument check ride nine months before the accident, had received his instrument training on airplanes equipped with a conventional artificial horizon as a source of aircraft attitude information, while N3794N was equipped with an older-type Sperry F3 attitude gyroscope. Crucially, the two types of instruments display the same aircraft pitch attitude information in graphically opposite ways.
The CAB concluded that the probable cause of the accident was "the pilot's unwise decision to embark on a flight" that required instrument flying skills he had not proved to have. A contributing factor was Peterson's unfamiliarity with the old-style attitude gyroscope fitted on board the aircraft, which may have caused him to believe that he was climbing when he was in fact descending (an example of spatial disorientation). Another contributing factor was the "seriously inadequate" weather briefing provided to Peterson, which "failed to even mention adverse flying conditions which should have been highlighted".