Friday, September 7, 2018
The Day Music Died
On February 3, 1959, American rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" 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."
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 also joined the tour.
Richardson, who had the flu, swapped places with Jennings, taking his seat on the plane, while Allsup lost his seat to Valens on a coin toss. Soon after takeoff, late at night and in poor, wintry weather conditions, the pilot lost control of the Beechcraft Bonanza and crashed into a cornfield killing everyone on board
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 the conditions, Holly chartered a plane to fly to their next concert in Moorhead, Minnesota.
Buddy Holly had terminated his association with the Crickets in November 1958 and assembled a band consisting of Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup and Carl Bunch with the opening vocals of Frankie Sardo. New artist Ritchie Valens, J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and Dion DiMucci and his band and The Belmonts joined the tour to promote their recordings.
The distances between venues had not been properly considered when the performances were scheduled; instead of "circling" around the Midwest to each town, the tour zig-zagged with distances between cities over 400 miles. General Artists Corporation, the organization that booked the tour, later received considerable criticism for their seemingly total disregard for the conditions they forced the touring musicians to endure.
The entire company traveled together in one bus, although the buses used for the tour were wholly inadequate, breaking down and being replaced quite often. It's estimated that five reconditioned buses were used in the first eleven days. The artists themselves were responsible for loading and unloading equipment at each stop and the buses were not equipped for the weather which consisted of waist-deep snow in several areas and varying temperatures from the 20s to as low as −36 °F. One bus had a heating system that broke down shortly after the tour began.
Later, Richardson and Valens began experiencing flu-like symptoms and drummer Bunch was hospitalized for severely frostbitten feet, after the tour bus broke down in subzero temperatures near Ironwood, Michigan.
On Monday, February 2, the tour arrived in Clear Lake, having driven 350 miles from the previous day's concert in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The town had not been a scheduled stop, but the tour promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called the manager of the local Surf Ballroom and offered him the show and a show was scheduled for that night.
The next scheduled destination after Clear Lake was Moorhead, Minnesota, a 365-mile drive. Holly decided to charter a plane to take himself and his band to Fargo, North Dakota; the rest of the party would have picked him up in Moorhead, saving him the journey in the bus and leaving him time to get some rest.
The plane was a V-tailed Bonanza. Flight arrangements were made with Roger Peterson, a 21-year-old local pilot. The flying service charged a fee of $36 per passenger for the flight on the 1947 aircraft which could seat three passengers plus the pilot.
The exact events leading up to how the musicians ended up on the plane have been in dispute, but after the show ended, Holly, Valens, and Richardson were driven to the Mason City Municipal Airport. The weather at the time of departure was reported as light snow, a ceiling of 3,000 feet with sky obscured, visibility 6 miles and winds from 20 to 30 mph. Although deteriorating weather was reported along the planned route, the weather briefings the pilot received failed to relay the information.
The plane took off normally at 12:55 am on Tuesday, February 3 one of the musicians witnessed the take-off and 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 northwesterly heading and a climb to 800 feet. The tail light was then observed gradually descending until it disappeared out of view.
Around 1:00 am, when the pilot failed to make the expected radio contact, repeated attempts to establish communication were made, but they were all unsuccessful. Later that morning, having heard no word from the pilot another plane took off to retrace his planned route and within minutes, at around 9:35 am, the wreckage less than 6 miles northwest of the airport. A deputy sheriff drove to the crash site in a cornfield.
The plane had impacted the ground at a speed estimated to be around 170 mph, banked steeply to the right and in a nose-down attitude. The right wing tip had struck the ground sending the aircraft cartwheeling across the frozen field for 540 feet before coming to rest against a wire fence.
The bodies of Holly and Valens had been ejected from the fuselage and lay near the plane's wreckage. Richardson's body had been thrown over the fence and into the cornfield. The pilot's body was entangled in the wreckage. The county coroner 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.
Holly's pregnant wife learned of his death from the reports on television. A widow after only six months of marriage, she suffered a miscarriage shortly after, reportedly due to "psychological trauma". Holly's mother, on hearing the news on the radio at home in Lubbock, Texas, screamed and collapsed.
The official investigation was carried out by the Civil Aeronautics Board and it emerged that the pilot, although he had passed his written examination, he was not qualified to operate in weather that required flying by reference to instruments. He and the flying service were certified to operate only under visual flight rules, which essentially require that the pilot must be able to see where he is going. 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, the pilot, 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 while his plane was equipped with an older attitude gyroscope.
The two types of instruments display the same information in graphically opposite ways. It was concluded that the accident was due to "the pilot's unwise decision to embark on a flight" that required instrument flying skills he did not have. A contributing factor was Peterson's unfamiliarity with the old-style attitude gyroscope 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 which "failed to even mention adverse flying condition which should have been highlighted".
As a result of the miscarriage suffered by Holly's wife and the circumstances in which she was informed of his death, a policy was later adopted by authorities not to disclose victims' names until after their families have been informed.