Thursday, August 6, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: A Series on Celebrity Plane Crashes

Back in October of 2002, I was in Minocqua, Wisconsin, visiting my friend Joe Handrick. As we sat at his parents' B&B, with snow falling from an October sky, we saw the news that Senator Paul Wellstone's plane had crashed in Minnesota. We spent a good bit of the afternoon recounting other political and celebrity plane crashes.

This turned into a minor obsession, as I started trying to track down every celebrity plane crash I could. I had thought about writing a book, and ultimately I did draft a manuscript that I did not publish, tentatively titled Collision With Fame.  Then my friend Scott Cooper later joined me to help research some of the cases. But the trigger never got pulled on the project.

Well, now I'm gonna share the project. This post will be the first of several that excerpts the manuscript and details these plane crashes. It will highlight some of the obvious ones -- Buddy Holley, Will Rogers -- as well as obscure ones. I'll probably drop in one or two posts a week, not more. Whenever possible, the post will link to photographs and NTSB/CAB reports on these horrible, famous events.

Below the jump  is an edited version of the introduction to the original book manuscript.

Collision with Fame
Famous People, Famous Plane Crashes


Airplane travel is, to say the least, not natural.  Human beings travel by air with great frequency, and it is the most affluent and creative of people who regularly fly.  After all, to travel by air, you have a need to place yourself far from where you usually reside, and you have a need to get there quickly.  Those of us who fly a lot do so because of the nature of what we do and who we are.  And, for many of us, the regularity and safety of climbing on board an airplane is taken for granted.

 Once, not so long ago, air travel had a sexy mystique about it.  The airlines had grown up out of mail service and crop dusting operations to take on a larger role in the economy.  By the 1930s, air service was an adventure, for the affluent and cosmopolitan.  The Pan Am Clipper made the globe reachable, but only to those who could afford the ticket and the time and who needed to journey to the far reaches of the globe.  The service was solicitous, people dressed to travel, and the product was marketed as a status symbol – to fly was to be glamorous.

 Air travel was also very risky.  The planes were small and fragile, the technologies new. The sky was an uncharted realm about which we continue to learn. Crashes happened. 

 But the airplane was the future, an American technology and a symbol of freedom – and in America, freedom also means the opportunity to achieve fame and glory, the chance for everyone to be a star. That planes and movie stars went hand-in-hand should be no surprise, and the glamour of the perception of flight far out-paced its reality. To land at an airport and disembark a plane was to make an entrance, down a ramp onto a lighted stage. Flying was sexy and dramatic, and the marketing of flight played on those features.  By the 1960s, air travel reached a glamorous zenith, and the term “jet set” was quickly applied within a decade of jet-service to describe a relatively young, affluent, mobile, sophisticated traveler who hopped continents. 

 Perhaps that is why we are intrigued by flight, and also by tragedies of flight. When plane crashes happen, and a celebrity is claimed, the event takes on special importance – glamour turns ugly. A distinct part of who we are at the time is lost.  Perhaps it is a leader, or a sporting hero, or an innovator, or an entertainer.  Regardless, the tragedy is noted and relived because a “what if” quality takes hold.  “What if” Buddy Holly had not chartered that plane? Or the University of Evansville Basketball team had not had a plane with poorly distributed weight? Or Hale Boggs had skipped campaigning in Alaska in 1972?  What if Will Rogers had decided not to go flying off to Alaska with Wiley Post? What music would Jim Croce or Otis Redding have made? 

 The “Buddy Holly” crash is arguably the most referenced celebrity crash in history, and the one that best fills the “what if” category, though that crash isn’t even the biggest celebrity crash in history. But it has all the elements of celebrity culture at work –emerging stars, the need for speed, even a fateful coin-flip to determine who would fly and who would ride from Clear Lake Iowa to Fargo, North Dakota. National Public Radio and the major cable news networks all made note of the 50th anniversary of the event on February 3 2009, and we observed at least one local bank had dipped its flags to half-mast in memoriam. Celebrity plane crashes didn’t start with Buddy Holly and J. P. Richardson and Ritchie Valens, but even in the wake of notable crashes that followed – Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jim Croce, Otis Redding – the crash that has endured as “the Day the Music Died” is deemed the quintessential celebrity tragedy. 

But what of all the other crashes you don’t really know about, or only vaguely recall?  In the pages that follow, we document and describe the stories of over a hundred significant celebrity plane crashes.   If you are looking for lots of Buddy Holly pop culture material, this is not your book – but we do include the entire civil aeronautics board report of the notorious Cedar Lake crash, and we direct you to other sources that discuss the greatness of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. But before them, there was Tom Selfridge, Knute Rockne, Carole Lombard, and the biggest and most notable crash ever, Will Rogers and Wiley Post.

 This book arose from innumerable bar conversations, where people tried to recall the what-if and what-happened of plane tragedies involving celebrities, stars, athletes, leaders, and singers.  If you see a plane crash on television, the media first searches for the cause and the infamy of the victims.  Then, having found famous victims, the media and consumers of media try to wrap the crash in a broader context of analogous celebrity death.  We started with a universe of about 330 potential “celebrity” plane crashes, culled from our own knowledge, previous works, internet lists, newspaper searches, and bar conversations with folks around the world.  We narrowed that number largely based on two criteria:  Was the person in question really a celebrity, or simply known by virtue of association with celebrity?  Was the story itself interesting or novel to American celebrity culture? 

 In the end, we compromised a bit on both criteria to accommodate a third one: one of us found the story intriguing. Data came from every documentary source available, but primarily from news archives, magazine archives, and National Transportation Safety Board accident reports. Whenever possible we also present information about the aircraft equipment involved.  Many of these crashes are also associated with changes in aviation administration, regulation, or safety procedures.  We discuss these consequences when they occur. 

In any event, what we have compiled are the essential facts, consequences, and what-ifs of over one hundred airplane tragedies that captured the attention of the public not just for the tragedy of the crash, but for the talents and accomplishments of the persons on board.  

 Dying on a plane is not the same as dying in a crash. It is with no small amount of disappointment that we cannot include the story of Len Koenecke, a former utility outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants.  The Dodgers finished the 1935 season 13 games under .500 and in fifth place. Koenecke, separated from the team, was on a charter flight out of Detroit -- he hit a respectable .283 with 4 homers.  Evidently drunk and agitated, he stormed the cockpit, got in a fifteen-minute fight with the flight crew, and was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher by one or both of the pilots. They didn’t crash, despite Koenecke’s best efforts.  And so his story is not formally part of this volume. 

 It is also worth noting that there are certain types of air crashes you will not find in this volume. The volume includes some crashes involving astronauts. It does not include space craft tragedies like Challenger, Columbia, and the Apollo I.  Some military flyers are in here, but they were notable despite being military flyers, or were celebrities because they were pioneers of aviation. There is no entry for the Red Baron --Rittmeister Manfred von Richthoven-- who was shot down but enjoyed no celebrity beyond his military pursuits, but there is one for Quentin Roosevelt, who was also shot down but was famous from childhood as part of the first modern media family, the Roosevelts of Sagamore Hill. The focus is on those who had other claims to notoriety but perished when an aircraft failed. We are generally deficient in the treatment of foreign celebrities who did not penetrate the American popular culture. 

 Source Material: The research for this text utilized numerous primary and secondary sources.  National Transportation Safety Board and Civil Aeronautics Board reports of various crashes proved invaluable to ascertaining the details of many crashes.  Major news reporting services such as the Associated Press, the United Press (and later United Press International), Reuters, and TASS provided extensive coverage, as did major newspapers of record including the New York Times New Orleans Times-Picayune, Washingon Post, Atlanta Constitution, Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Independent of London, Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald, Boston Globe, The Columbus Dispatch,  Louisville Courier-Journal, Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, Indianapolis Star, Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman,   Miami Herald, Saint Petersburg Times, London Times, International Herald Tribune, and local and national periodicals including Fortune Magazine,   Time, Newsweek, People, Variety, Outside Magazine, Evansville Living Magazine, Sports Illustrated, AAHS Journal, L’Express, The National Journal, and editions of The Almanac of American Politics.

Organization: the book is thirteen chapters, each of which contains a collection of tragedies that share some similarity.  There are actors, athletes, astronauts; musicians and singers; politicians, entertainers and adventurers.   What they all share in common, other than an untimely demise, is a common thread of talent and risk-taking that caused the rest of us to notice them when they were here, and to pay tribute when they were gone.