A few days ago, nearing the end of a ten day “escape from the virus lock-down” vacation to visit family in Montana, Deb and I were on the downhill slide of the 2-day drive when one of “those” songs came on the radio. For anyone over the age of, say 50, the ageless notes and haunting lyrics of Don McLean’s “American Pie” will conjure up memories, and inevitably force one to sing along with the tag lines of…” the day, the music died. And we were singing, bye, bye Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levy and the levy was dry…”
For those not privy to the meaning of the song, it was a lament to the untimely death of Buddy Holly, a young rock and roll star that was rising like a proverbial meteor, and literally taking the musical soul of teenage America by storm (his song, “That’ll Be the Day” was #1 on the music charts). The story of the plane crash that took his life, is both fascinating and very sad.
The band of rockers had been on the road for a few weeks, in the middle of a “winter tour” through the upper Midwest during a typical bone-jarring cold stretch in early 1959. Their tour traveling machines were old, “re-conditioned”, UN-heated school buses, known for stranding the band frequently, and on the night of the crash, Holly and a few band members decided they would miss the long, cold ride (from the small town of Clear Lake, Iowa, to the next night’s gig in Fargo, North Dakota), by chartering a small plane and flying the few hundred miles. The decision would cost them and the music world dearly.
(Rock and Roll star Buddy Holly. I highly recommend the movie “The Buddy Holly Story” with THE Gary Busey in the lead role. Gary sings all the tunes himself, and it’s a truly great movie, about a truly great rock and roller. Strangely, the movie was made the same year that this yarn took place…1978.)
Holly had it all set. He made arrangements through Dwyer Flying Service, to have a young pilot by the name of Roger Peterson whisk them out of the brewing blizzard, to Fargo hours ahead of the buses. The price for the flight would be a grand total of $108.00 (roughly $400 in today’s monetary world). Bassist Waylon Jennings (who would become known as an “outlaw” country and western star) and guitarist Tommy Allsup were set to accompany Holly on the flight. At the last minute, J.P. Richardson (known as “the Big Bopper” and singer of the popular song “Chantilly Lace”) asked Jennings for his seat. Richardson was ill and feeling terrible. His flu symptoms were getting worse, and the thought of several hours on an un-heated bus, in the middle of the night was simply too much to bear. Jennings protested, but finally agreed, thus relieving J.P. from the torturous bus ride through the dark, snowy night.
Guitarist Tommy Allsup was also slated to take the flight, but newly minted star Richie Valens (of tune “La Bamba” fame) was also suffering from days spent on the freezing busses, and was now becoming ill with the flu. For several minutes, he badgered Allsup for his seat, and they finally agreed to let a coin toss decide. Allsup flipped the 50-cent piece into the air, Valens called “heads” and it indeed landed face up. The manifest for the ill-fated flight was set.
After the crash, Jennings would spend many years racked with guilt about the events. Although he and Holly were widely known to give each other a dubious amount of “chin music”, their last conversation would haunt him without reprieve. As they were leaving for the airport, Holly quipped to Jennings, “I hope your damn bus freezes up again.” To which Jennings tragically fateful reply was, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” Fate can be truly wicked.
They departed the Mason City Airport at roughly 1 a.m., climbed into snow flakes swirling in a strong southerly wind, and turned to the northwest. Witnesses saw the white tail light of the small plane slowly descend until it vanished from sight. The Civil Aeronautics Board (it would later become the FAA) stated that the Beechcraft V35 Bonanza, N3794N, was developing normal engine power, gear/flaps retracted, and impacted a snow-covered field at approximately 170 knots, right wing low. The machine cartwheeled and came to rest against a barb-wired fence. All four perished on impact. The three musicians were thrown from the machine, while the pilot remained tangled in the wreck. The causal findings of the CAB mentioned that the low flight time pilot was too in-experienced to handle the worsening weather. Peterson had been flying for four years and had amassed 711 total flying hours.
The world was shocked and saddened by their deaths. The press would refer to it as, “The Day the Music Died”.
One of the first times I was treated to this haunting ballad, I was a high school student in Mrs. Chadwick’s 11th grade English class. She was one of those cool teachers that wasn’t afraid to chuck the textbooks, and free-wheel stuff. We broke down previously confusing works like “Beowulf” and were now exploring this amazing song line by line. It seemed really cool to this awkward, long-haired, pimply-faced, teenager, and each and every time I hear this tune, I’m transported back to the year 1973, the hallowed halls of Southwest High School in Ft. Worth, Texas, and the vortex of puberty.
Reminiscing aside, the death of Buddy Holly (and Richie Valens, J.P. Richardson, and their pilot) indeed had “touched me deep inside” (a line from “American Pie”) for the circumstances of their demise hit a bit close to home. You see, they were flying in one of the most iconic single-engine airplanes ever constructed…the venerable Beechcraft V35 Bonanza. I too, had an “episode” in a Bonanza as a fledgling aviator, and wrote the following piece about that event.
I give you a rerun of one of my “BBall’s Logbook” entries (this one from the year 2002):
“BBall, Buddy Holly and the Bonanza”
The year was 1978, and most things were right with the world. Menachim Begin and Anwar Sadat would share the Nobel Peace prize for their work at Camp David, Prime Minister P.W. Botha was beginning work to dismantle the culture of apartheid in South Africa, the disease smallpox was eradicated from the planet, and two of my all-time favorite movies were filling the theaters …”Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House”. That, plus the BIG news of the year; the Dallas Cowboys had won Super Bowl XII, defeating the Denver Broncos 27-10. As I remember it though, there were only two things that really, REALLY sucked about that year. Disco music was in full swing (“Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees was the #1 song), and I almost died flying a Beechcraft Bonanza.
The first sucky part I won’t talk about, for if you were alive during those horrid, dark days of disco, then you know just how cruel those times actually were. Imagine being a 20-something year old male, hormones raging, adorned in your best bell-bottom jeans, and “attempting” to dance to the audio-vomit known as disco. All this simply to garner the attention of the opposite sex….it was a cruelty that I dare not describe. The second part was quite an adventure, except of course for the almost perishing in a crumpled heap of aluminum and body parts thing. I’ll explain in a minute.
I was enjoying my senior year at college, and the prospect of graduating and finding a “real” flying job was starting to look more like a reality then some far off event. I had been flying for a grand total of five years, and held most every rating and license short of the pinnacle of all professional aviators: the coveted Airline Transport Pilot’s License. I had earned my Commercial Pilot’s License, an Instrument Rating, my Certified Flight Instructor-Airplane/Instrument License, a Multi-engine rating, my Multi-engine Flight Instructor License, and had a grand total of just over 700 hours of flight time. The last year or so had seen me working as a Staff Flight Instructor for the college I was attending, flying the occasional charter flight, and riding along with my ex-roommate Rick on his nightly freight runs to build my multi-engine time. There never seemed to be a dull moment in those worn cockpits, steering long since used-up airplanes (full of cancelled checks), to small towns and insignificant destinations in the middle of the night. To be sure, it was a young man’s game, and we had more than our share of excitement, but I’ll save those yarns for another time.
(The iconic Beechcraft V35)
The Beechcraft V35 Bonanza has always been a huge favorite among general aviation pilots; in fact, my friend Rick (now a B767 Captain for American Airlines) is the proud owner of a V35 Bonanza. Aircraft maker Beechcraft first conceived this V-tail marvel back in 1945, with the birth of the first aircraft in February of 1947. It would later be morphed into the straight-tail C33 Debonair version in 1959, but it was a huge success from the moment it hit the ramp. It’s widely known for its ruggedness, it’s speed, it’s “Breechcraft pedigree” of superior quality and craftsmanship, it’s VERY distinctive V-tail, and one rather ignominiously foreboding nick-name….”the fork-ed tail doctor killer”.
That’s what the old heads called the Bonanza, and it seemed to have more than earned that moniker. In fact, most people aren’t aware of it, but famous rock and rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (alias The Big Bopper) tragically perished in an Iowa corn field, one cold, snowy night, in February 1959…in a V35 Bonanza. It was an accident that would shake the rock and roll world to its core, and it conjures up memories of my own. I distinctly remember a field trip that my college class took to the FAA Aeromedical Academy in Oklahoma City that left an indelible mark on my pilot psyche. One of the highlights was a trip through what they called the “Gallery of Death”, which was a large room with hundreds of graphic pictures of small plane crashes (a lovely thing to show to a group of aspiring airline pilots).
They were all very grizzly in detail, and we noticed one weird coincidence. It seemed, an inordinate amount of them were Beechcraft V35 Bonanzas. The FAA folks also felt compelled to treat us to a macabre event. It was a recording of air traffic conversation between an ATC controller and a Bonanza pilot. He had gotten trapped trying to navigate through some thunderstorms, had experienced severe turbulence, and the massive up and down drafts caused the engine to break free from its mounts in the nacelle and shift forward. The center of gravity was now far outside the forward limits, and the plane was headed for earth with the aerodynamic properties of a greased man-hole cover. The ATC Center controller was talking to this doomed pilot and the shock of his terrified voice becoming more and more shrill, sent horrific chills down our spines. I could never figure out if they wanted all of us to become the safest pilots we could possibly become, or just have the crap scared out of us and quit flying altogether.
(The twisted wreckage of N3794N…the machine where “the music died”.)
With all that said, here’s my Bonanza tale.
I had taken several days off from college classes to fly a few nights with Rick on his freight run, but more importantly, to help him with a charter flight he had agreed to, but due to other commitments couldn’t take. It seems that two of his friends (of the female persuasion) needed to get from Dallas, Texas to Columbia, Missouri to attend a wedding. Rick agreed to fly them, but when he realized he couldn’t do it, he called the next best pilot he knew. Actually, that guy didn’t answer his phone so Rick called me, and I accepted the challenge…lol. Of my astounding 7oo+ hours of flight time, very little had been logged in a V35 Bonanza. Yes, I had done my Flight Instructor training in a C33 Debonair (again, basically a straight-tailed version of the Bonanza), and had flown some night freight runs with Rick in his company’s V35, but I had basically no Pilot in Command time in one of these whiz-banged “fork-ed tailed Messerschmitts”. Could I handle it? Hell yes I could! For after all, I was an instrument rated, commercially licensed 22-year-old, “steely eyed” aviator, and I was the man for the job. That, plus I really fancied the idea of flying two VERY lovely young ladies around and not having to pay for it (I’m talking about the airplane of course).
Rick and I flew a freight run to Baton Rouge the night before the big event, landed at dawn, and spent the day trying to grab some sleep. Later that evening, we headed out to Love Field for him to give yours truly some training in the Bonanza. This was a sweet little machine, and the attorney that owned it had really treated it with kid gloves. Crushed velour seats, very nice cockpit, great Nav/Comm radios, hell, it even had an auto-pilot (not quite the ilk of the B757, but it was cool nonetheless). We pre-flighted the machine, and spent just under an hour or so doing touch and go’s in the traffic pattern so I could get acquainted with this little wonder. About the time we taxied up to the FBO, my passengers were arriving, and the sun was starting to set. Rick met the girls, and advised me to head into the office to file my IFR flight plan while he loaded my suitcase, and got the ladies settled. One small note about this particular FBO at Love Field in the year 1978 has to be mentioned. Most of the line crew-MEN weren’t…men that is. They were VERY nice-looking young ladies, adorned in the shortest shorts and halters tops that any guy (without aspirations for interior design) could dream up. This was most probably the reason that Rick used this facility, and on that important matter, I deferred to his expertise.
I had us refueled, pre-flighted the Bonanza once again, and the three of us launched with the westward horizon fading from pink to black. Within a few minutes, we settled into what portended to be a very boring few hours on our Missouri-bound journey. I was alone in the front seat, while the girls sat in the back chatting, and doing what girls do on their way to a wedding; mainly, pontificate about how big a mistake the bride is about to make. Flying at night in a single engine airplane isn’t something you might catch me doing nowadays, but back then, it seemed like a no-brainer…the weather was benign, the machine was functioning well, and the “scenery” was great. What could possibly go wrong?
(All Beechcraft machines are very well made, beautiful and are known as the “Mercedes” of the small plane world.)
I began to hearken back to the days when I was first learning to fly. I’ll never forget that first night flight way back in 1973. My instructor, John, and I were aloft in the little Cessna 150, and were droning along headed back to Meacham Field to do some take-offs and landings. Suddenly, John reached over and pulled the throttle all the way back (meaning to the “OFF” position) …he announced, “we’ve just had an engine failure”. Holy crap! This we had practiced over and over again during our daylight flights, but at night? I set up the proper glide speed, and began to search for a suitable “off airport” place to put this thing down…but it was dark out there. He then hit me with some of the more prophetic words I’ve heard during the last 29 years of flying…”pick a dark spot…a field…. glide down doing your emergency checks…when you’re about to touch down, turn on the “Landing Light”…. if you don’t like what you see…TURN IT OFF…” I was mortified…he was laughing his ass off (he was to perish in a light twin crash within the year).
As the girls and I droned along at 7000’, the time had come to switch the fuel tanks, but being the consummate professional, I let the engine “cough” first gaining every last drop from that tank before switching it to the next one. From “R Main” to “L Aux” done with all the panache that any high-time (experienced) aviator would use. The two passengers didn’t particularly like the part where the engine sputtered, but I assuaged their fears with my clear, calm, words of confidence. The weather was becoming IFR (cloudy) as we neared the Arkansas border, so I asked for a higher altitude from ATC, and this did the trick. We were now “on top” of the under-cast below, and life was back to being grand. A bit later in the now boring flight, it was time to switch fuel tanks again…yep, let it “cough”, move the lever to “R Aux” and viola!…masterfully done once more. This was a breeze, and the girls were feeling so much at home in this little “airliner” that they displayed their ultimate vote of confidence…they lit up a joint. Oh crap, not good…. but I had the fresh air vent on me blowing all the smoke back toward them, and what the hell, if they wanted to get stoned, how could it possibly affect me?
OK, just about to Missouri, and it’s time to switch fuel tanks one last time. It would be the last piece in the fuel puzzle, and that tank would be more than enough to allow us to breeze on into Columbia, and call it a night. O.K., fuel boost pump “on”, let it cough, then move the lever to “L Main”, and we’re all done with the fuel gymnastics. Unfortunately, this is the part in the movie where one “small problem” reared its ugly head.
When I switched the lever over to “L Main” (and the only tank that had any Avgas left in it) the engine abruptly protested with great authority. It continued to “cough” and the RPM dropped to just under 1000…. in other words, the engine wasn’t responding. After switching the fuel lever back to all the other tanks THAT I HAD PREVIOUSLY RUN DRY, I found myself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I quickly put the fuel lever back to “L Main”, left the boost pump on, and watched the airspeed start to decay. I had enough forethought to trim the airplane for the best glide speed, and start into the emergency checklist. The only problem (of course) was that the fuel emergency checklist assumed you had something to burn in the other tanks…which I didn’t. I read it anyway, and it listed everything I had already tried. Time to land, but where?
(Cockpit of a Beechcraft Bonanza.)
I “fessed up” to Ft. Worth Center ATC, told them we were having a “slight engine problem” (as we descended into the under-cast), and would need vectors to the nearest airport (I flashed back to the dudes shill voice on the FAA Academy audio tape…and tried not to let mine gain any octaves). The girls were coming out of the fog and asking what was happening….”uh, well, we’re going to be landing soon to check something out…nothing to worry about.”…talk about a buzz kill. The Center controller told me that there was an airport directly below me in this area of northwest Arkansas, and to “state the nature of your problem”. I didn’t want to declare an emergency (a hugely dumb move, but common for someone with limited experience), so I told him that the engine was running “a bit rough” and that we’d be landing to have it looked at. I asked for some 360 spirals to stay within gliding distance of whatever airport we were above, and tried to keep myself together and my instrument scan going. We broke out of the clouds at about 4000’ and I spotted the airport rotating beacon almost directly below us! The engine was giving me about 800 RPM and keeping the electrics and vacuum pumps goings, so all I had to do was semi-dead stick this thing into whatever field we were circling. Piece of cake…John…are you watching?
The runway was oriented north to south, looked to be at least 5000’ long, and had several lighted buildings on the west side, so it didn’t look to be some “po-dunk” farmer’s field type operation. I somehow managed to judge it correctly, plopped the thing on the runway, gently tapped the brakes, and slowed to a taxi speed to exit (in this instance, when I got to 500′ I turned on the landing light, liked what I saw and left it on…lol). As we turned off the runway, I noticed one of the lighted buildings was a big hangar with an airline logo above the door, and lo and behold it looked like several folks were inside working on various airplanes! Again, I was getting enough RPM to keep us moving, so we taxied over to it, shut down and I went in to see if we could get some help. I vividly remember looking around after I got out of the airplane and seeing the dark shadows of many large hills circling the airport. If I recall correctly, the gravity of the situation caught up with me right about now, and strangely enough, my knees became a bit rubbery.
As it turned out, we had landed at Drake Field in Fayetteville, Arkansas. During the day, this was a very busy airport, and the home base of a commuter (or as we call them now “Regional”) airline by the name of Scheduled Skyways, Inc. In one of my life’s stranger coincidences, this would be the commuter airline that I would fly for not two years down the road. I would be based in Fayetteville (our other pilot base being Little Rock), and I would become very familiar with the nuances of this little field tucked into the “mountains” of northwest Arkansas.
As luck would have it, one of the Skyways mechanics wasn’t busy, towed the airplane into the hangar, and checked it out for us. Within a few minutes, he informed me that one of the fuel lines was almost completely clogged (guess which one…yep, the Left Main). He was kind enough to blow the line clean, help us gas the machine back up, and sent us on our way. I don’t remember paying him anything for his effort, but I’m sure we did…maybe the girls offered him some “wacky weed”. Funny, but I also don’t remember having any reservations about climbing into that thing, firing it up, and launching back into that cold black night. Nowadays, after an adventure like that, you’d find me comfortably ensconced on a bar stool for about a year.
(I was to cut my “airline teeth” at the controls of the SA-226 Swearingen Metroliner in the skies over the southern U.S. The day they took this picture, I was busy inside doing paperwork for my upcoming day in the sky. Most all of these folks became good friends of mine…lots of stories here…lol.)
That trip turned out to be a milestone in this young aviator’s career. No, not the night dead-stick landing from IFR weather part, but the weekend in Missouri part. Remember me mentioning that the FBO in Dallas was employing lots of VERY attractive young ladies? It seems that when Rick was supposed to be loading the Bonanza with my overnight gear, he was doing the “hey, I’m a pilot, how do you like me so far?” routine with one of the line-crew girls. You guessed it, I had just the clothes on my back and nothing more! Apparently, he was preoccupied and forgot to load my suitcase in the airplane. Of course, I didn’t realize this until we were unloading the bags on the ramp in Columbia.
We were met by several friends of my passengers (all girls) late that night, and I was whisked away to spend the next three days at the home of the bridesmaid of honor…this all seemed quite innocent, until I found out that her parents WERE IN EUROPE on vacation. I vaguely remember attending a wedding that weekend dressed in the bridesmaid’s father’s suit (including his shoes), and being the object of lots of attention. I must’ve answered those girls questions about how I “saved their friends lives” a hundred times. I’ll admit that I conveniently left out the part where the almost crash was my fault, that I had run the gas in the other tanks dry , and how much of an idiot I was. One thing I will say about those Missouri girls, well, …I’m just not gonna say.
So somewhere over Arkansas, on a cold October night in 1978, I met the ghosts of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and their 21-year-old pilot Roger Peters (he had almost the exact total amount of flight hours as yours truly). He had taken off in a veritable blizzard, and either lost control due to buildup of ice on the wings of his Bonanza, or possibly became a victim of vertigo and spiraled into the ground from such. Either way, four young lives were cut tragically short that night. As I thought about his doomed flight and my “incident”, I felt like he and I had shared a dark cockpit, spiraling down through the clouds with a plane load of terrified passengers. In my case, I had an engine that would run at somewhere around idle RPM, but fortunately, I had generally “good enough” weather. In his case, the engine was fine, but the weather was far worse, and thus, the ending was far different. I am completely certain however, that we both experienced one common thing; an overpowering sense of things not turning out well. I (maybe with the help of his…and my instructor John’s spirit) pulled off an (almost) dead stick landing, at night, from some pretty crappy circumstances, and in the process scared the hell out of one fledgling pilot.
It was a cruel twist of fate that took Buddy Holly. his friends, and one young pilot from us 19 years earlier; for it was far too early in their lives…it was in fact, “the day the music died”. However, the fickle purveyor of fortune let me be…gave me a proverbial “pass” as it were. I lived to continue my sufferings during those salad days of disco, but I must say, the three days spent in a house in Missouri with a half a dozen partying girls truly helped ease the pain.
Oh, and I learned to never run a fuel tank dry…ever.
“It’s destiny, Peggy Sue…everything’s destiny.” – Buddy Holly
till next time,