ON THIS DATE (53 YEARS AGO)
February 3, 1959 – The Day the Music Died.
On February 3, 1959, a small-plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, killed three American rock and roll pioneers: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, as well as the pilot, Roger Peterson. The day was later called “The Day the Music Died” by Don McLean, in his song “American Pie”. The plane crash has been called the first and greatest tragedy rock and roll has ever suffered.
“The Winter Dance Party” was a tour that was set to cover twenty-four Midwestern cities in three weeks. A logistical problem with the tour was the amount of travel, as the distance between venues was not a consideration when scheduling each performance. Adding to the disarray, the tour bus used to carry the musicians was not equipped for the weather; its heating system broke shortly after the tour began.
The condition of the bus and the grueling pace of the tour are evidenced by the fact that Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, had been hospitalized in Ironwood, Michigan, due to a severe case of frostbitten feet that developed when the bus broke down enroute to Appleton, Wisconsin during the overnight trip following the January 31, 1959, show in Duluth, Minnesota. As Holly’s group had been the backing band for all of the acts, Holly, Valens and Dion DiMucci (of Dion and the Belmonts) took turns playing drums for each other at the Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Clear Lake, Iowa, shows.
The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, was never intended to be a stop on the tour, but promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called Surf Ballroom manager Carroll Anderson and offered him the show. He accepted and the show was set for Monday, February 2.
By the time Buddy Holly arrived at the Surf Ballroom that Monday evening, he was frustrated with the tour bus. According to VH-1’s Behind the Music episode, “The Day the Music Died”, Holly was also upset that the laundromat in Clear Lake was closed that day, and he would need time before the next performance to finally clean some undershirts, socks, and underwear. Holly told his remaining band mates, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup, that they should try to charter a plane to save time and to avoid the cold bus ride of 380 miles (610 km) to the tour’s next stop – Moorhead, Minnesota.
Flight arrangements were made with Roger Peterson, a 21-year-old local pilot who worked for Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City, Iowa. A fee of $36 per passenger was charged for the single-engined 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza 35 (V-tail), registration N3794N (later reassigned). The Bonanza could seat three in addition to the pilot.
Richardson had developed a case of flu during the tour and asked Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane. When Holly learned that Jennings wasn’t going to fly, he said in jest, “Well, I hope your old’ bus freezes up” and Jennings responded, also in jest, “Well, I hope your old’ plane crashes”. This exchange of words would haunt Jennings for the rest of his life.
Ritchie Valens had never flown in a small plane before, and, in spite of his own fear of flying, asked Tommy Allsup for his seat on the plane. Tommy said “I’ll flip ya for the remaining seat”. Contrary to what is seen in La Bamba, the coin toss did not happen at the airport shortly before takeoff, nor did Buddy Holly toss it. Bob Hale, a DJ with KRIB-AM, was working the concert that night and flipped the coin in the ballroom’s sidestage room shortly before the musicians departed for the airport. Valens won the coin toss, and with it a seat on the flight.
Dion had been approached to join the flight, although it is unclear exactly when he was asked. Dion decided that, since the $36 cost of the flight was the same as the monthly rent his parents paid for his childhood apartment, he couldn’t justify the indulgence.
The plane departed from the ramp and taxied to then-Runway 17 at around 12:55 AM Central Time on Tuesday, February 3. Contrary to popular belief, there was no blizzard at the time but a very light snowfall with winds out of the south at 20 knots, gusting to 30 knots and a cloud ceiling of 3,000 feet above sea level. Since Mason City Municipal Airport was at 1,200 feet, this left 1,800-foot of airspace between the ground and cloud cover. It is unknown whether or not Peterson intended to file a Special-rules VFR flight plan in spite of the obvious weather.
Hubert Dwyer, owner of the plane and the flight service company, watched from a platform outside the tower and “saw the tail light of the aircraft gradually descend until out of sight”, just after 1:00 AM. Peterson had earlier told Dwyer he would file a flight plan with Air Traffic Control by radio after takeoff. When Peterson did not call the tower personnel with his flight plan, Dwyer requested that they continue to attempt to establish radio contact, but all attempts were unsuccessful.] By 3:30 AM, when Hector Airport in Fargo, North Dakota, had not heard from Peterson, Dwyer contacted authorities and reported the aircraft missing.
Around 9:15 AM, Dwyer took off in his own Cessna 180 to fly Peterson’s intended route. Within minutes he spotted the wreckage less than 6 miles (9.7 km) northwest of the airport, (43°13′13″N 93°22′53″WCoordinates: 43°13′13″N 93°22′53″W) in a cornfield then belonging to Albert Juhl. The Bonanza was at a slight downward angle and banked heavily to the right when it struck the ground at around 170 miles per hour (270 km/h). The plane tumbled and skidded another 570 feet (170 m) across the frozen landscape before the crumpled wreckage came to rest against a wire fence at the edge of Juhl’s property. The bodies of Holly and Valens lay near the plane, Richardson was thrown over the fence and into the cornfield of Juhl’s neighbor Oscar Moffett, and Peterson’s body remained entangled inside the plane’s wreckage. With the other participants on “The Winter Dance Party” enroute to Moorhead, it fell to Surf Ballroom manager Carroll Anderson, who drove the musicians to the airport and witnessed the plane’s takeoff, to make positive identifications of the musicians. All four had died instantly from “gross trauma” to the brain, the county coroner Ralph Smiley declared.
Investigators concluded that the crash was due to a combination of poor weather conditions and pilot error, resulting in spatial disorientation. Peterson, working on his instrument rating at the time, was still taking flight instrumentation tests and was not yet certificated for flight into weather that would have required operation of the aircraft solely by reference to his instruments rather than by means of his own vision. The final Civil Aeronautics Board report noted that Peterson had taken his instrument training on airplanes equipped with an artificial horizon attitude indicator and not the far-less-common Sperry Attitude Gyro the Bonanza was equipped with (it was further discovered that Peterson had failed his instrument checkride shortly before the incident). Critically, the two instruments display aircraft pitch attitude but depict such information in a visual manner opposite of one another; therefore, the board considered that this could have caused Peterson to think he was ascending when he was, in fact, descending. They also concluded that Peterson was not given adequate warnings about the weather conditions of his route, which, given his known limitations, might have caused him to postpone the flight out of prudence.