February 3, 2009 will be the fiftieth anniversary of 'The Day the Music Died' that made Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson, and Richie Valens bigger than life. This article is more of a reference, rather than providing any new information on the famous Buddy Holly plane crash. That said, you may find a few facts here that you didn't know previously.
The biggest myth (although it's easily debunked by the official Civil Aeronautics Board report) was that the fuel line in the Beechcraft Bonanza froze in the cold weather, causing the plane to lose power and crash. Another story is that ice formed on the wings and brought down the plane. This isn't true, of course, since the engine was running at normal cruising revolutions when it struck the ground, and no evidence of icing was found. The cause of the crash has been determined as simply pilot error.
Events Leading Up to the Takeoff from Mason City
It was Mr. Carroll Anderson, the manager of the Surf Ballroom in nearby Clear Lake, Iowa who made arrangements to charter the plane. Anderson drove everyone in his car to the airport in nearby Mason City, with his wife and child along for the ride. A few hours earlier, Anderson had spoken to the owner of the plane, Hubert Dwyer, about a possible charter. Dwyer agreed, and then asked pilot Roger Peterson to make the flight. From later reports, it sounds like pilot Peterson was excited and a bit star-struck about the idea of flying three of the biggest names in rock-and-roll to their next gig. Peterson was only 21 years old.
Peterson had exactly 711 hours flying time, which is only a fair amount of experience, and he had failed one instrument-rating test already. Peterson had to get a special waiver because the hearing in his right ear was weak. But he finally passed the rating and had about fifty hours time on instruments. Ordinarily, this might be sufficient, but not on a sub-freezing night with blowing snow and unexpected wind gusts.
At 7:30 P.M. Roger Peterson started making preparations for the flight. He checked in at the Mason City airport with Dwyer and together they got a weather report through the communicator person in the tower. The report was typical winter stuff, but flyable. Unfortunately, the communicator failed to tell the men about a new, much more intense weather advisory that had just been released. A major front was reported moving down from Minneapolis with winds to thirty mph and gusts up to fifty. This is a key factor, since plane owner Dwyer would almost certainly have canceled the charter.
Pilot Peterson told Dwyer he would file a flight plan enroute by radio. At around 12:15 a.m. his three passengers showed up in Carroll Anderson's car. The famous coin flip that eliminated Tommy Allsup from the flight actually happened back at the Surf Ballroom, not at the airport. Everyone stowed away their luggage and got aboard. The plane taxied to the end of the runway, took off and headed south, and then turned northwest to get on course for Fargo, North Dakota.
Hubert Dwyer walked out onto a platform outside the tower and watched as the plane flew away. He thought it was strange that the plane gained altitude to around 800 feet, and then seemed to descend slowly until its lights disappeared. He said later that because of the light snow and darkness, he couldn't tell if this was an illusion caused by the plane flying away from him, or if it was REALLY descending. He went back inside the tower and waited for Peterson to contact him by radio with the flight plan. When there was no transmission from the plane, Dwyer told the communicator on duty to call up the flight. The communicator made multiple attempts without result.
As a matter of fact, the plane WAS descending, and the two culprits were a new artificial horizon instrument on the Bonanza, and pilot Peterson's ignorance of how it worked. Unlike the traditional artificial horizon, this new Sperry model, called an 'F-3 attitude gyro', actually showed aircraft pitch in reverse from what Petersen had trained on, and without a doubt he was confused by it from the start of the flight. 'Pitch' basically refers to whether the nose of the aircraft is pointed up or down during flight.
Only a few miles from the airport, the Bonanza crashed into a stubble corn field and all aboard were killed.
But what happened?
The Likely Scenario
If you've ever been caught driving on a dark road with blowing snow coming straight at your headlights, then you'll know what it was like for pilot Roger Peterson when he reached 800 feet and made his turn. He couldn't see the ground, since there were no lights in that area, and he was in trouble right away. Relying on an artificial horizon instrument that operated backwards from the usual, he went into an immediate descent without realizing it. When the plane hit the ground only a few miles from the airport, it was descending at 50 feet per second. This means Peterson thought he was CLIMBING, when he was actually descending.
When the plane crashed, it was going at full speed and in the middle of a right turn. Peterson would have read this on his instruments as a right ASCENDING turn. One good theory is that they had decided to turn back for the airport due to the weather, and struck the ground instead.
Almost the minute they were airborne, they must have realized they couldn't make it to Fargo, because instead of the relatively normal conditions Peterson was told were aloft, they ran into 30-50 mph winds and snow. It was like being suspended in darkness, with heavy winds buffeting the aircraft, snow rushing straight at the windshield, while roaring along at 160mph.
The plane hit wingtip-first, then bounced, and then rebounded back into the air for a short distance. It then struck again and either slid or tumbled nearly the distance of two football fields, strewing pieces along the way. The pilot was trapped in the wreckage, while Holly, Valens, and Richardson were thrown forcibly from the plane at the very end, just before it came to a stop at a barbed-wire fence.
It's likely they hardly felt a thing. It would have been over very quickly.
Outside Links of Interest:
Buddy Holly Sings 'Peggy Sue' Live on the Arthur Murray Dance Party. This one is interesting because it is obviously not a lip-sync and a boom microphone was used to catch Holly's vocals. Buddy was willing to sing anywhere, and when he showed up for this one, it was almost like appearing on the Lawrence Welk show. The hostess actually makes apologies and reminds viewers that if they don't keep up on the new music, they won't understand teenagers. Buddy never misses a beat.
Richie Valens and Chuck Berry appeared in a film together. Chuck Berry got the lines while Valens sings 'Ooh, My Head'.
La Bamba is arguably the best film containing the Buddy Holly crash. And Brian Setzer's rendition of Summertime Blues is arguably the hottest number in the movie.
Buddy Holly's hometown of Lubbock, Texas hasn't forgotten about their favorite son, either.
They named the place The Buddy Holly Center.
Additional: Author Robert Blevins' recent tribute to the late, great Eddie Cochran.