65 years ago, on February 3, 1959, a Beechcraft Bonanza light plane carrying three young, outstanding musicians, representing the rising rock and roll stars of their time, crashed in Iowa. The song American Pie, created 12 years later, gave the fateful day associated with the tragedy a name forever. The day the music died.
Wreckage of the Beechcraft Bonanza at the crash site
| Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Civil Aeronautics Board, free work
“But February made me shiver, with every paper, I’d deliver, bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step,” is sung in the song American Pie, which was composed and released in 1971 on the album of the same name by the American singer and songwriter Don McLean. These words can be loosely translated as follows: “But in February I was seized with a tremor, with the leaves that I spread again, the bad news on the doorstep, even a step would cost me effort.”
Don McLean – American Pie:
A song that received a number of cover versions, the most famous of which is probably the one by Madonna, was McLean’s response to a grim childhood experience. He was 13 then, in New Rochelle, New York, making extra money delivering newspapers – and he learned for the first time about the tragic plane crash that killed three famous rock and roll musicians at once: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Jiles Perry Richardson, better known by the nickname The Big Bopper.
“I was just carrying a package of the local Standard-Star newspaper. They were tied with string, and when I cut it and opened the package, it was on the front page,” McLean recalled in a 2009 Rolling Stone magazine article The Last Days of Buddy Holly. What actually happened on that fateful day in the year fifty-nine?
Winter on the bus
The leader of a young rock and roll band, then twenty-two-year-old Buddy Holly, planned a major Midwest winter music tour in early 1959, called the Winter Dance Party Tour. In addition to his group, consisting of Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup and Carl Bunch, he also invited several other young rising stars of the time to join him: namely Valens, Richardson and the vocal group Dion and the Belmonts.
“It’s hovering and it’s not a plane,” the novice pilot reported the mysterious object to the control tower. Then there was another scraping metal sound and the transmission stopped. Forever:
It’s floating and it’s not a plane. The disappearance of Frederick Valentich is full of strangeness
Unfortunately, the hired tour bus and the winter weather betrayed the musicians relatively soon. On the bus in severe American frosts the heating failed and all the musicians were frozen to the bone. Richardson caught the flu, 19-year-old Carl Bunch even suffered frostbite and had to stay in Michigan’s Ironwood Hospital – just across the border from Wisconsin, where the groups had previously performed in three cities, Kenosha, Eau Claire and Green Bay. Little did Bunch know that his injury would very likely save his life.
Fed up with how the tour was going, Buddy Holly changed the tour schedule. After a performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, where the musicians introduced themselves on February 2, 1959 at the Surf Ballroom, he decided to continue with his band by plane.
Madonna – American Pie:
He won his death by a coin toss
Tour manager Anderson procured a Beechcraft Bonanza light plane to transport Holly’s band to Moorhead for another show immediately after the show. Even before departure, however, there were a few changes in the personnel on board the plane.
“The flu a suffering Richardson convinced band member Waylon Jennings to give him his seat on the plane, and Ritchie Valens tossed a coin with Tommy Allsup for another seat and won,” writes the History Channel.
60 people did not survive the disaster of Aeroflot flight 141 in February 1973. The singer Eva Pilarová could also be among the victims:
Aeroflot Flight 141: The tragedy, when Eva Pilarová could have died, is still accompanied by myths
It was an extraordinarily cruel irony of fate: while Bunch’s bad luck and frostbite saved his life, Valens’s successful bet on luck resulted in his death.
After the evening’s show ended, Anderson drove Holly, Valens and Richardson to the nearby Mason City Municipal Airport. Light snowfall, visibility of about 10 kilometers and wind speed of 8.9 to 13.4 m/s were reported for the time of departure. In addition, the weather was supposed to deteriorate on the planned route, but this information apparently did not reach the pilot of the plane, Robert Peterson.
Fifty-five minutes after midnight on February 3, 1959, the plane took off. To disasters few minutes left.
Hit the ground
After takeoff, the aircraft climbed to a height of about 340 meters, then turned left to the northwest and disappeared from the control tower. Peterson was supposed to call the tower around one, but he didn’t. An accident just happened. Not even 10 kilometers from the airport, the Bonanza, still in a spinning maneuver, hit the terrain at high speed (later estimated at 270 km/h). The impact didn’t give anyone on board the slightest chance.
A Bonanza plane similar to the one that killed rock and roll singersSource: Wikimedia Commons, Bill Larkins – Beech 35 N3188V Jan1949, CC BY-SA 2.0
“A red Beechcraft B35 Bonanza crashed into frozen ground. The right wing left a 15-centimeter-deep, 17-meter-long furrow, disintegrating into pieces of fabric and metal. The hull bounced hard, rolled and tore for another 150+ meters. The plane’s nose, door frame, and tail cone all shattered and scattered until what was left of the plane finally came to rest on a barbed wire fence surrounding the end of a long, empty cornfield. It was just after one o’clock in the morning. The pilot’s body remained deep within the twisted mass. Outside lay the bodies of three young men, thrown from the plane at a speed of more than 240 kilometers per hour. All were killed instantly by the impact, their bodies and heads shattered,” writes Michael Hall of Texas Monthly in the article The Night the Music Died.
The investigation revealed that although Peterson had completed 52 hours of instrument flight training, he had only passed the written test and was not yet qualified to fly in conditions requiring instrument orientation only. But that’s exactly what happened that fateful night: the combination of nighttime and low cloud cover made it impossible at all the horizon could not be seenwhich was compounded by the fact that the flight path was over a sparsely populated area where there were no ground lights.
It is one of the world’s most famous stories of the struggle for survival that took place in the 20th century. The Uruguayan rugby team had to fight for survival in the Andes:
They survived the plane crash and the avalanche. In the mountains they had to eat the dead to save themselves
Investigators also pointed out that Peterson did not have sufficient information about the weather because no one had sufficiently stressed to him that visibility on his route would deteriorate. However, the main responsibility rested with the pilot: according to the conclusion of the investigation, the cause of the disaster was his unreasonable decision to attempt a flight requiring skills that he did not have.
The tragedy left its mark in the history of world music in the same way that it marked the history of Czech pop music Aeroflot Flight 141 disaster in February 1973, when a plane crashed near the runway in Prague-Ruzyn, killing 66 people, including members of singer Eva Pilarová’s backing band.
The singer herself however, unlike Buddy Holly, she was lucky because she was returning from the tour on a different flight.