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Experts explain: Today, 65 years ago, the cause of Buddy Holly plane disaster was discovered.
Many songs refer to February 3, 1959, as “the day that music died,” when Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson perished in an aircraft accident.
The phrase originated from Don McLean’s 1971 hit song “American Pie.”
“The end of the happy 50s,” as he put it to Forbes Magazine, is where the song about the collapse of the 60s begins, with the deaths of the three young musicians.
Investigators attribute the incident that left such a devastating mark on music history to rapidly shifting winter weather conditions that were not relayed to the rookie pilot.
The Civil Aeronautics Board, tasked with looking into the crash, stated that “it is believed that shortly after takeoff, pilot Peterson entered an area of complete darkness and one in which there was no definite horizon; that the snow conditions and the lack of horizon (visual of the ground) required him to rely solely on flight instruments for aircraft attitude and orientation.”
On the evening of February 2, the artists had just concluded a leg of their “Winter Dance Party” tour at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
In the middle of winter, the 24-day tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and traveled through Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.
From an organizational standpoint, the tour was a total bust. As they traveled in the worst possible transportation during one of the worst winters the Midwest had seen in decades, the performances were frequently arranged hundreds of miles apart, according to the ballroom’s website.
“The musicians packed into a chilly bus to play in tiny theaters and ballrooms, and by February 1st, Holly’s drummer Carl Bunch had left with frostbitten feet.”
According to the Civil Aeronautics Board Accident Report, Holly, the tour’s driving force, 22, decided she had had enough of frigid conditions and broken-down buses, so she leased a four-seater plane to travel to the event the following night in Morehead, Minnesota.
Waylon Jennings, the musician’s bassist, and Tommy Allsup, his guitarist, were invited to participate.
Valens, Richardson, Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo, Jennings, Allsup, and Bunch were among the performers on the tour.
The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture states that the 17-year-old Valens requested Allsup’s seat because he had never flown on a small aircraft before.
After tossing a coin, Valens “won” the seat.
A flustered Richardson took Jennings’ seat, the accident report states.
Though the remarks were made in fun, Jennings informed the Country Music Hall of Fame that he would always be haunted by his final conversation with Holly.
Holly remarked, “I hope your damn bus freezes up again,” in response to Jennings informing her that he would not be traveling by airline.
In response, Jennings said, “I hope your ole plane crash.”
Decreasing wintertime temperatures
Richardson, Holly, and Valens arrived at the airport shortly after 1:30 a.m.
At Mason City, Iowa, the temperature was a brutal fifteen degrees, with gusts gusting to about thirty-six miles per hour.
According to the report, a cold front moved across Nebraska from western Minnesota, and a second cold front moved across North Dakota.
The fronts were preceded by strong winds and a lot of snow.
According to the report, “the temperature and moisture content were such that there existed moderate to heavy icing and precipitation in the clouds along the route.”
Roger Peterson, a 21-year-old pilot, received weather reports from air traffic controllers multiple times between 5:30 p.m. and takeoff.
The pilot had been employed by the firm that owned the aircraft, led by Hubert Dwyer, as a contract commercial pilot and flight instructor for around five years.
According to the accident investigation, “he was a young married man who built his life around flying.”
Peterson received weather updates from two controllers that provided one waypoint and the conditions at Mason City and Fargo.
Regretfully, two “Flash Advisories” were issued by the NWS at night due to deteriorating weather.
“Neither communicator could remember alerting Pilot Peterson to these flash advisories.” Mr. Dwyer said that no warning was given to him or pilot Peterson that instrument flying weather will be encountered on route when they went to ATCS (Air Traffic Control Service).
Peters’ certification included only Visual Flight Rules (VFR) flying in clear weather, not Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flying in cloud cover.
Nine months before to the tragedy, he passed the written test for instrument flying but failed the practical flight check.
Using a gyro horizon, a traditional artificial horizon device, he completed 52 hours of instrument instruction.
The pilot may see if he is flying up or down, parallel to the earth, or both with the gyro horizon, which is today known as an attitude indicator.
An attitude gyro was a different kind of indicator used in the tragic Beechcraft Bonanza.
The accident report described the situation as “exactly the opposite from that depicted by the conventional artificial horizon.”
The report made clear that ATCS was in charge of providing the pilot with all relevant information and, upon request, interpreting the data.
According to the report, “at Mason City, one could reasonably have expected to encounter adverse weather during the estimated two-hour flight, as the barometer was falling, the ceiling and visibility were lowering, light snow had begun to fall, and the winds aloft and surface were so high.”
The accident report’s Analysis section presented a horrifying image.
The study said that there was proof the weather briefing only included readings of the current weather at the en route terminal and terminal forecasts for the destination.
“The pilot may understate the severity of the weather situation if the communicators do not highlight the importance of these advisories and bring them to the pilot’s attention.”
Around one in the morning, Dwyer and the air traffic controller watched the plane take off.
Dwyer said to the investigators that the aircraft rose and took off as planned.
Five miles or so later, the plane’s illuminated tail gently dropped off and vanished.
The pilot was not responding when air traffic tried to radio him.
Dwyer didn’t discover the plane behind four inches of snow until he was searching for it while flying overhead at nine in the morning.
A barbed wire fence surrounded the major debris, while pieces scattered across 540 feet of the secluded area.
The three musicians were ejected from the aircraft, but the pilot was still inside.
Evidence indicating the aircraft was configured for cruising and flying at a suitable high speed—165–170 mph—was discovered by the investigators.
However, at the time of impact, the plane was falling at a speed of 3,000 feet per minute and was perpendicular to the ground.
The plane skidded and/or rolled approximately 570 feet, according to the coroner’s report, before coming to a halt at the fence.
According to the coroner’s report, “the mass of wreckage approximated a ball with one wing sticking up diagonally from one side.”
The rate of climb and turn instruments would have fluctuated “to such an extent that an interpretation of these instruments so far as attitude control would have been difficult to a pilot as inexperienced as Peterson,” according to analysis, due to intense gusty winds and turbulence.
The report came to the conclusion that “he could have become confused and thought that he was making a climbing turn when in reality he was making a descending turn.”
According to the coroner, during the ten hours of exposure at roughly eighteen degrees, portions of each body had frozen.
Each body’s clothing had to be provisionally identified by the tour manager.
Sixty years after the catastrophe, Maria Elena Holly told the Australian Financial Review that she first saw it on television.
She miscarried the child she had been carrying for six months due to the shock. She was not there at the funeral.
According to the review, she was scheduled to go on the tour but canceled when she learned she was expecting.
Had she been with him, she would never have allowed him to take the journey because she was afraid of small planes.