John Denver was born in Roswell, New Mexico, where his father was an Air Force flight instructor. He started playing guitar at age 12, and in 1964 he dropped out of Texas Tech to start a music career. John changed his last name from Deutschendorf to Denver to make his name fit on a club marquee. In 1965 he joined the Chad Mitchell Trio, leaving three years later to pursue a solo career. He emerged as a musical talent when he wrote “Leaving on a Jet Plane” in 1967. The song was initially recorded by the Mitchell Trio, but emerged as a major hit in 1969 when Peter, Paul, and Mary covered the song and it went to #1 on the Billboard charts. The song continued to be a cover favorite, having been recorded by numerous jazz, rock, pop, country, and hip-hop artists, plus Frank Sinatra.
His first album, Rhymes and Reasons, was released in 1969 and included his recording of “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Two additional albums followed in 1970 (Whose Garden Was This? and Take Me to Tomorrow), but it was in 1971 that his album Poems, Prayers, and Promises which contained his breakout hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads”(#2 on Billboard Chart) propelled Denver to the start status. He quickly followed on with Rocky Mountain High in 1972 (#2 Album on the Charts); two #1 singles in 1974 with “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Annie’s Song”; and two more #1 singles in 1975 “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and “Calypso.” Denver then broke into film in 1977 starring with George Burns in “Oh God!”
Denver’s crossover appeal in the 1970s was tremendous. Recognized as a country artist, he was a “lite” country artist, running contrary to the classic country of Jim Reeves and the outlaw country of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash. His pop appeal was unlike the Southern Rock groups such as Lynyrd Skynyrd or Charlie Daniels, being vested in uplifting sentimental ballads that bordered on the style of modern Christian inspirational music. Denver won American Music Awards in 1975 and 1976 in Country and Pop/Rock categories, and was the Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year in 1975. He also won a primetime television Emmy for his variety special. Denver’s appeal led to his being named Poet Laureate of Colorado and he was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1996.
John Denver was recognized across multiple artistic disciplines. It was late in his career that he finally achieved recognition from the National Academy of Recording Artists (the Grammy Awards). He twice won Grammies – both posthumously -- in 1997 for his children’s album “All Aboard!” and in 1998 when he was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for his classic single “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” His dedication to flight and space exploration won him recognition from NASA, which awarded him the NASA Public Service Medal in 1985.
The Crash: John Denver loved to fly. He had over 2,700 hours of flight time and held multi-engine and instrument ratings and was rated to fly jets. He had passed the NASA physical and psychological tests for space travel, and had the chance to operate the space shuttle simulator. He had attempted to become one of the first civilians put into space by NASA and had also investigated going up into space with the Russians. His 1986 song “Flying for Me” was a tribute to the crew of the unfortunate space shuttle Challenger, which exploded over Florida on January 28 1986.
In early 1997 Denver purchased a Rutan Long-EZ, a home-built kit-craft airplane that was first offered on the market in 1976. Developed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, the Long-EZ is a light-weight, energy efficient canard with a “pusher” configuration – the engine and prop are mounted at the rear of the craft (French for duck, a canard aircraft places the tail plane ahead of the main wing.). According to design specifications, the Long-EZ can fly 1,600 miles on 52 gallons of fuel at a speed of 160 mph. The goal of experimental aircraft like the Long-EZ, which is considered a generally safe craft, was to lower the cost of aviation. Denver investigated the purchase of a Long-EZ and took possession of his airplane on October 11, 1997.
On October 12, 1997, Denver took off at 1712 hours and performed three touch-and-goes before departing the traffic pattern at 1727 hours. Denver crashed at 1728 hours near Pacific Grove, Calif. Denver crashed into the Pacific, 150 yards off the California coastline near, Pacific Grove. The plane’s wreckage came to rest in on the bottom under 30 feet of water. The velocity was sufficient going into the water to break rock formations on the ocean floor. The craft and Denver’s body were recovered by the Pacific Grove Ocean Rescue Team and also by members of the county sheriff's Dive Team. According to witnesses of the crash, the plane was “observed . . . in a steep bank,” or a “steep nose-down descent,” and “eight of the witnesses said that they heard a "pop" or "backfire," along with a reduction in the engine noise level just before the airplane descended into the water.”
Denver’s Long-EZ had a significant modification made to its control configuration The fuel tank selector valve was relocated from under the seat between the pilot’s legs, to the bulkhead behind the pilot's seat. The relocated fuel selector handle had no markings for the operating positions of the fuel selector handle. NTSB notes that “deviation from the original design plans did not require FAA approval, nor did it require a placard to indicate such change from the original design.” Upon taking delivery of the craft at Santa Maria, Calif., Denver took a
checkout flight with the delivery pilot (Denver had flown the craft three time sprior to purchase). According to the checkout pilot, Denver needed a seatback cushion to fully reach the rudder pedals, and “[Denver] had difficulty reaching the fuel selector handle while seated with the cushion added.”
Denver flew home to Monteray in the craft, with 12.5 gallons of fuel in the right tank, 6.5 gallons in the left tank and an estimated 9 gallons were needed to fly for an hour – but not before Denver and the checkout pilot “made arrangements . . . to relocate the fuel selector handle while [Denver] was away on tour.” When Denver went to fly the next day, he did not visually check the fuel and was offered a fuel top-off by a maintenance technician, which he refused. According to the NTSB, the maintenance tech misread the fuel gauges (located in the rear cockpit and only visible to Denver using a mirror), assuming that they were linear gauges and properly calibrated (the gauges were neither); also, the tech reported “that when [Denver] was seated in the airplane, he had difficulty reaching the fuel selector handle.” Denver took off with probably no more than three gallons of fuel in his right tank and less than ten gallons total.
Interviews with pilots familiar with Denver’s Long-EZ revealed a four step procedure to change the fuel selector: (1) Remove hand from the right side control stick; (2) Release shoulder harness; (3) Turn body 90 degrees to the left to reach the handle; (4) Turn the handle to another position. NTSB reported in the flight history that at least two pilots had experienced having “inadvertently run a fuel tank dry with nearly catastrophic consequences because of the selector and sight gauge locations.” NTSB investigators conducted a reconstruction and simulation of Denver’s effort to switch the fuel tanks, using another Long-EZ. That experiment revealed:
that 4 actions were required to change the fuel selector in flight: 1) Remove pilot's hand from the control stick; 2) Loosen shoulder harness; 3) Rotate upper body to the extreme left to reach the fuel selector handle; & 4) Rotate the handle to a non-marked (not logically oriented) position. During the evaluation, investigators noted a natural reaction for the pilot's right foot to depress the right rudder pedal when turning in the seat to reach the fuel selector handle. With the right rudder depressed in flight, the airplane would pitch up slightly & bank to the right.
NTSB investigation also focused on the question of whether Denver’s Long-EZ was overpowered. NTSB notes that the operator’s manual states the craft was designed to mount either a Continental O-200 100 horsepower (hp) engine or a Lycoming O-235 115 hp engine. Denver’s canard sported a Lycoming O-320-E3D 150 hp engine with a higher fuel consumption rate (8.5-10 gallons per hour). Burt Rutan informed NTSB that only the Continental models O-200 or O-240 or the Lycoming O-235 engines were approved for installation. He also noted that the success of modifications of the Long-EZ “with engines of up to 200 horsepower and operate at weights 50 percent above the prototype limit” indicated that “there are substantial margins in the design.” Center of gravity and weight analysis of the craft indicated that, while the limits of tolerances were pushed in the modifications of the craft, they had not rendered the airplane unusable.
The NTSB also investigated Denver’s status to fly. The singer had DUI arrests in 1993 and 1994. The latter was taken to trial and resulted in a hung jury, where Denver argued that a thyroid condition distorted the alcohol test administered to him. As a condition of keeping his license and medical certificate, in 1995 the FAA informed Denver that "continued airman medical certification remains contingent upon your total abstinence for use of alcohol." Because his flight physical did not indicate abstinence, FAA asked him to return his certificate. NTSB brought up Denver’s drunk driving arrests in their evaluation, arguing that his failure to abstain from alcohol and the history of multiple arrests disqualified him from obtaining any medical certificate to fly. Autopsy results revealed no alcohol in his system at the time of the crash.