How An Aircraft Crash Became Known As The Day The Music Died

On February 3rd, 1959, musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “The Big Bopper” J. P. Richardson died along with pilot Roger Peterson in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The artists were heading to Hector Airport, North Dakota from Iowa’s Mason City Municipal Airport when the tragic accident occurred. This event would leave a mark for generations and would come to be known as “The Day the Music Died.”

The Day The Music Died Crash
Yesterday marked 62 years since the incident happened just outside of Clear Lake, Iowa. Photo: Getty Images

A twist of fate

Before the passengers boarded the flight, Holly and his band, which included Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, and Carl Bunch, were performing on their tour across the Midwest. Upcoming stars, Valens and Richardson also jumped on the tour, along with Dion and the Belmonts.

The weather at the time was harsh, with the cold conditions spreading cases of the flu and frostbite. So rather than traveling on an uncomfortable tour bus, Holly decided to charter a plane with Dwyer Flying Service to help reach the tour’s next destination of Moorhead, Minnesota.

His bandmate, Jennings, was initially going to join the flight. However, Richardson was suffering from the flu and swapped with the musician. Meanwhile, Allsup also lost his place following a coin toss with Valens.

These turns of events would end up being fatal for the two rising stars. The pilot lost control of the aircraft soon after departure and crashed into a cornfield.

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Iowa Monument
The accident would inspire several artistic works honoring those on board, including the song American Pie by Don McLean, which includes the phrase, “The Day the Music Died.” Photo: Dennis Fernkes via Wikimedia Commons

More on the aircraft

The plane involved in the incident was a Beechcraft Model 35 Bonanza. The aircraft was built in 1947 and held registration number N3794N. It had one engine, four seats, and a distinct V-tail.

“N3794N was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 471.24-cubic-inch-displacement (7.72 liter) Continental Motors, Inc., E185-8 horizontally-opposed 6-cylinder engine with a compression ratio of 7:1. This was a direct-drive engine which turned a two-bladed, electrically-controlled, Beechcraft R-203-100 variable-pitch propeller with a diameter of 7 feet, 4 inches (2.235 meters), constructed of laminated birch. The engine had a maximum continuous power rating of 185 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m., at Sea Level, and  205 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. (five minute limit) for takeoff,” This Day In Aviation shares.

“It required 80/87-octane aviation gasoline and had an expected overhaul interval of 1,500 hours. The E-185-8 had a dry weight of 344 pounds (156 kilograms). The “V-tail Bonanza” had a maximum speed of 184 miles per hour (296 kilometers per hour) at Sea Level, and a cruise speed of 175 miles per hour ( 282 kilometers per hour)at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). Its service ceiling was 18,000 feet (5,486 meters). With full fuel, 40 gallons (151.4 liters), the airplane had a range of 750 miles (1,207 kilometers).”

The Model 35 was in production between 1947 and 1982. Altogether, over 17,000 units of the aircraft and its sibling, the Model 36 were made.

Beechcraft Bonanza
A V-tailed Bonanza aircraft, with a similar resemblance to the aircraft involved in the accident of February 1959. Photo: Bill Larkins via Wikimedia Commons

Inexperience at the post

Peterson was only 21 years old when he agreed to fly the musicians to Fargo for $36 ($322 in modern currency) each. He only logged 128 hours on Bonanzas and was operating in pitch darkness at 01:00.  Notably, he had logged 52 hours of instrument flight training, but had only passed his written examination and was not yet certified to fly in conditions that required operating only by reference to instruments.

The flight only lasted for four minutes as he headed directly into the blowing snow from an incoming blizzard. The harsh conditions caused him to lose his orientation and he flew down instead of up. The bodies of all of those on board were found ten hours later.

Peterson had already been operating for 17 hours before he decided to fly the musicians. So, his fatigue had a part to play, along with his inexperience. Additionally, he had checked the weather but never received communication from the aviation weather briefer that there was a flash weather advisory issued to take effect at 00:40. This warning would have notified him of a “rapidly moving cold front with blizzard conditions, blowing snow, fog and visibility generally less than 2 miles.”

Snow, Airports, Airlines
The aviation industry is much better equipped to handle harsh weather today. Photo: Getty Images

Detrimental factors

Ultimately, there was a series of issues that led to the crash. These factors all quickly combined to deliver a disastrous ending.

“The crash resulted from a deadly cocktail of error-producing conditions. The Civil Aeronautics Board (forerunner of the NTSB) determined that “the probable causes of the accident were the pilot’s unwise decision to embark on a flight which would necessitate flying solely by instruments when he was not instrument certificated or qualified to do so,” AOPA Pilot Protection shares.

“Contributing factors were serious deficiencies in adequacy and communication of the weather briefing, and the pilot’s fatigue as well as unfamiliarity with the instrument that determined the pitch angle of the aircraft.”

Buddy Holly's Personal Effects From "The Day The Music Died"
Items recovered from the scene of the incident include Holly’s lensless frames, dice, a zippo lighter, and parts of a watch that possibly belonged to The Big Bopper. Photo: Getty Images

A lasting legacy

The tragic incident came to be known as “The Day the Music Died.”  Nonetheless, the impact of the musicians that were on this aircraft is still prevalent today. Buddy Holly was a pioneer of the Rock and Roll scene. He would go on to influence future superstars such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Elton John.

Meanwhile, despite, having his career cut so short, Ritchie Valens would also leave a mark. His rendition of “La Bamba” is still a favorite at parties and would also inspire famous cover versions. J. P. Richardson Jr., more familiarly known as The Big Bopper, was a fantastic musician in his own right, but was also behind chart-topping tracks such as George Jones’ “White Lightning.”

What are your thoughts about this accident in Iowa in February 1959? Did you hear any particular stories about this incident? Let us know what you think of the event in the comment section.