Tuesday, February 2, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: “The Day the Music Died” as Told by the CAB and the Coroner

I wouldn't mind dying in a plane crash. It'd be
a good way to go. I don't want to die in my sleep,
or of old age, or OD. I want to feel what it's like.
I want to taste it, hear it, smell it. Death is only going
to happen to you once; I don't want to miss it
 Jim Morrison

The February 3 1959 "Buddy Holly" crash near Mason City, Iowa, is the most legendary celebrity airplane crash of all time.  Three young, talented emerging stars on tour board a small aircraft on a stormy winter night.  Within hours, the craft crashes, the young stars have died, and talent becomes legend for Buddy Holly, J. P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, and Ritchie Valens. Volumes are written on this crash, which inspired movies  such as The Buddy Holly Story, La Bamba, and the proposed The Day the Music Died; song, including Don MacLean’s somber, enduring ballad “American Pie;” and fiction such as Stephen King’s excellent short story “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band.  A half-century after the crash, it still looms in the national psyche, the great “what if” of rock and roll.   

The impact of these three players on music is well-documented. Holly was a stylistic innovator who continued to hit the charts long after his death; Richardson, known mainly for novelty recordings like “Chantilly Lace,” was a veteran radio man who had innovative ideas for what would eventually become the music video industry; and Ritchie Valens was a high school kid with a fresh sound who was the first Latino rock star to break through with mainstream, crossover appeal. 
For the benefit of the reader, we have decided to present you with the one aspect of the story that is rarely told.  Volumes are written on the Buddy Holly crash, and it is best to allow those Holly experts their day. But, this crash presents an opportunity to present the relatively compact, unedited, investigation reports of a major crash. So, below is the story of the crash of N 3794N, the Beech Bonanza carrying Holly, Richardson, and Valens, as told by the investigators on the scene from the Civil Aeronautics Board and the coroner for Cerro Gordo County, Iowa.     

The CAB Report

Civil Aeronautics Board Accident Report
Aircraft Accident Report
Adopted: September 15, 1959
Released September 23, 1959 Mason City, Iowa
February 3, 1959


A Beech Bonanza, N 3794N, crashed at night approximately 5 miles northwest of the Mason City Municipal Airport, Mason City, Iowa, at approximately 0100, February 3, 1959. The pilot and three passengers were killed and the aircraft was demolished.

The aircraft was observed to take off toward the south in a normal manner, turn and climb to an estimated altitude of 800 feet, and then head in a northwesterly direction. When approximately 5 miles had been traversed, the tail light of the aircraft was seen to descend gradually until it disappeared from sight. Following this, many unsuccessful attempts were made to contact the aircraft by radio. The wreckage was found in a field later that morning.

This accident, like so many before it, was caused by the pilot's decision to undertake a flight in which the likelihood of encountering instrument conditions existed, in the mistaken belief that he could cope with en route instrument weather conditions, without having the necessary familiarization with the instruments in the aircraft and without being properly certificated to fly solely by instruments.


Charles Hardin, J.P. Richardson, and Richard Valenzuela were members of a group of entertainers appearing in Clear Lake, Iowa, the night of Feb. 2, 1959. The following night they were to appear in Moorhead, Minnesota. Because of bus trouble, which had plagued the group, these three decided to go to Moorhead ahead of the others. Accordingly, arrangements were made through Roger Peterson of the Dwyer Flying Service, Inc., located on the Mason City Airport, to charter an aircraft to fly to Fargo, North Dakota, the nearest airport to Moorhead.

At approximately 1730, Pilot Peterson went to the Air Traffic Communications Station (ATCS), which was located in a tower on top of the Administration Building, to obtain the necessary weather information pertinent to the flight. This included the current weather at Mason City, Iowa; Minneapolis, Redwood Falls, and Alexandria, Minnesota and the terminal forecast for Fargo, North Dakota. He was advised by the communicator that all these stations were reporting ceilings of 5,000 feet or better and visibility of 10 miles or above; also, that the Fargo terminal forecast indicated the possibility of light snow showers after 0200 and a cold frontal passage about 0400. The communicator told Peterson that a later terminal forecast would be available at 2300. At 2200 and again at 2330 Pilot Peterson called ATCS concerning the weather. At the latter time he was advised that the stations en route were reporting ceilings of 4200 feet or better with visibility still 10 miles or greater. Light snow was reported at Minneapolis. The cold front previously reported by the communicator as forecast to pass Fargo at 0400 was now reported to pass there at 0200. The Mason City weather was reported to the pilot as: ceiling measured 6,000 overcast; visibility 15 miles plus; temperature 15 degrees; dew point 8 degrees; wind south 25 to 32 knots; altimeter setting 29.96 inches.

At 2355, Peterson, accompanied by Hubert Dwyer, a certificated commercial pilot, the local fixed-base operator at the Mason City Airport, and owner of Bonanza N3794N (the aircraft used on the flight), again went to ATCS for the latest weather information. The local weather had changed somewhat in that the ceiling had lowered to 5,000 feet, light snow was falling, and the altimeter setting was now 29.90 inches.

The passengers arrived at the airport about 0040 and after their baggage had been properly stowed on board, the pilot and passengers boarded the aircraft. Pilot Peterson told Mr. Dwyer that he would file his flight plan by radio when airborne. While the aircraft was being taxied to the end of runway 17, Peterson called ATCS and asked for the latest local and en route weather. This was given him as not having changed materially en route; however, the local weather was now reported as: Precipitation ceiling 3,000 feet, sky obscured; visibility 6 miles; light snow; wind south 20 knots, gusts to 30 knots; altimeter setting 29.85 inches.

A normal takeoff was made at 055 and the aircraft was observed to make a left 180-degree turn and climb to approximately 800 feet and then, after passing the airport to the east, to head in a northwesterly direction. Through most of the flight the tail light of the aircraft was plainly visible to Mr. Dwyer, who was watching from a platform outside the tower. When about five miles from the airport, Dwyer saw the tail light of the aircraft gradually descend until out of sight. When Peterson did not report his flight plan by radio soon after takeoff, the communicator, at Mr. Dwyer's request, repeatedly tried to reach him but was unable to do so. The time was approximately 0100.

After an extensive air search, the wreckage of N 3794N was sighted in an open farm field at approximately 0935 that morning. All occupants were dead and the aircraft was demolished. The field in which the aircraft was found was level and covered with about four inches of snow.

The accident occurred in a sparsely inhabited area and there were not witnesses. Examination of the wreckage indicated that the first impact with the ground was made by the right wing tip when the aircraft was in a steep right bank and in a nose-low attitude. It was further determined that the aircraft was traveling at high speed on a heading of 315 degrees. Parts were scattered over a distance of 540 feet, at the end of which the main wreckage was found lying against a barbed wire fence. The three passengers were thrown clear of the wreckage, the pilot was found in the cockpit. The two front seat safety belts and the middle ones of the rear seat were torn free fro their attach points. The two rear outside belt ends remained attached to their respective fittings; the buckle of one was broken. None of the webbing was broken and no belts were about the occupants.

Although the aircraft was badly damaged, certain important facts were determined. There was no fire. All components were accounted fro at the wreckage site. There was no evidence of inflight structural failure or failure of the controls. The landing gear was retracted at the time of impact. The damaged engine was dismantled and examined; there was no evidence of engine malfunctioning or failure in flight. Both blades of the propeller were broken at the hub, giving evidence that the engine was producing power when ground impact occurred. The hub pitch-change mechanisms indicated that the blade pitch was in the cruise range.

Despite the damage to the cockpit the following readings were obtained:

Magneto switches were both in the "off" position.

Battery and generator switches were in the "on" position.

The tachometer r.p.m. needle was stuck at 2200.

Fuel pressure, oil temperature and pressure gauges were stuck in the normal or green range.

The attitude gyro indicator was stuck in a manner indicative of a 90-degree angle.

The rate of climb indicator was stuck at 3,000-feet-per-minute descent.

The airspeed indicator needle was stuck between 165-170 mph.

The directional gyro was caged.

The omni selector was positioned at 114.9, the frequency of the Mason City omni range.

The course selector indicated a 360-degree course.

The transmitter was tuned to 122.1, the frequency for Mason City.

The Lear autopilot was not operable.

The Aircraft

The aircraft, a Beech Bonanza, model 35, S/N-1019, identification N 3794N, was manufactured October 17, 1947. It was powered by a Continental model E185-8 engine which had a total of 40 hours since major overhaul. The aircraft was purchased by the Dwyer Flying Service, July 1, 1958, and, according to records and the testimony of the licensed mechanic employed by Dwyer, had been properly maintained since its acquisition. N 3794N was equipped with high and low frequency radio transmitters and receivers, a Narca omnigator, Lear autopilot (only recently installed and not operable), all the necessary engine and navigational instruments, and a full panel of instruments used for instrument flying, including a Sperry F3 attitude Gyro.


Roger Arthur Peters, 21 years old, was regularly employed by Dwyer Flying Service as a commercial pilot and flight instructor, and had been with them bout one year. He had been flying since October of 1954, and had accumulated 711 flying hours, of which 128 were in Bonanza aircraft. Almost all of the Bonanza time was acquired during charter flights. He had approximately 52 hours of dual instrument training and had passed his instrument written examination. He fail an instrument flight check on March 21, 1958, nine months prior to the accident. His last CAA second-class physical examination was taken March 29, 1958. A hearing deficiency of his right Ear was found and because of this he was given a flight test. A waiver noting this hearing deficiency was issued November 29, 1958. According to his associates, he was a young married man who built his life around flying. When his instrument training was taken, several aircraft were used and these were all equipped with the conventional type artificial horizon and none with the Sperry Attitude Gyro such as was installed in Bonanza N 3794N. These two instruments differ greatly in their pictorial display.

The conventional artificial horizon provides a direct reading indication of the bank and pitch attitude of the aircraft which is accurately indicated by a miniature aircraft pictorially displayed against a horizon bar and as if observed from the rear.. The Sperry F3 gyro also provides a direct reading indication of the bank and pitch attitude of the aircraft, but its pictorial presentation is achieved by using a stabilized sphere whose free-floating movements behind a miniature aircraft presents pitch information with a sensing exactly opposite from that depicted by the conventional artificial horizon.

 The Weather

The surface weather chart for 0000 February 3, 1959, showed a cold front extending from he northwestern corner of Minnesota through central Nebraska with a secondary cold front through North Dakota. Widespread snow shower activity was indicated in advance of these fronts. Temperatures along the airway route form Mason City to Fargo were below freezing at all levels with an inversion between 3,000 and 4,000 feet and abundant moisture present at all levels through 12,000 feet. The temperature and moisture content was such that moderate to heavy icing and precipitation existed in the clouds along the route. Winds aloft along the route at altitudes below 10,000 feet were reported to be 30 to 50 knots from southwesterly direction, with the he strongest winds indicated to be closest to the cold front.

A flash advisory issued by the U.S. Weather Bureau at Minneapolis at 2335 on February 2 contained the following information: "Flash Advisory No. 5 A band of snow about 100 miles wide at 2335 from extreme northwestern Minnesota, northern North Dakota through Bismarck and south-southwestward through Black Hills of South Dakota with visibility generally below 2 miles in snow. This area or band moving southeastward about 25 knots. cold front at 2335 from vicinity Winnipeg through Minot, Williston, moving southeastward 25 to 30 knots with surface winds following front north-northwest with 25 to gusts of 45. Valid until 0335." Another advisory issued by the U. S. Weather Bureau at Kansas City, Missouri at 0015 on February 3 was: "Flash Advisory No. 1. Over eastern half of Kansas ceilings are locally below one thousand feet, visibilities locally 2 miles or less in freezing drizzle, light snow and fog. Moderate to locally heavy icing areas of freezing drizzle and locally moderate icing in clouds below 10,000 feet over eastern portion Nebraska, Kansas, northwest Missouri and most of Iowa. Valid until 0515." Neither communicator could recall having drawn these flash advisories to the attention of Pilot Peterson. Mr. Dwyer said that when he accompanied pilot Peterson to ATCS, no information was given them indicating instrument flying weather would be encountered along the route.


There is no evidence to indicate that very important flash advisories regarding adverse weather conditions were drawn to the attention of the pilot. On the contrary, there is evidence that the weather briefing consisted solely of the reading of current weather at en route terminal and terminal forecasts for the destination. Failure of the communicators to draw these advisories to the attention of the pilot and to emphasize their importance could readily lead the pilot to underestimate the severity of the weather situation.

It must be pointed out that the communicators' responsibility with respect to furnishing weather information to pilots is to give them all the available information, to interpret this data if requested, but not to advise in any manner. Also, the pilot and the operator in this case had a definite responsibility to request and obtain all of the available information and to interpret it correctly.

Mr. Dwyer said that he had confidence in Peterson and relied entirely on his operational judgment with respect to the planning and conduct of the flight.

At Mason City, at the time of takeoff, the barometer was falling, the ceiling and visibility were lowering, light snow had begun to fall, and the surface winds and winds aloft were so high one could reasonably have expected to encounter adverse weather during the estimated two-hour flight.

It was already snowing at Minneapolis, and the general forecast for the area along the intended route indicated deteriorating weather conditions. Considering all of these facts and the fact that the company was certificated to fly in accordance with visual flight rules only, both day and night, together with the pilot's unproved ability to fly by instrument, the decision to go seems most imprudent.

It is believe 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 required him to rely solely on flight instruments for aircraft attitude and orientation.

The high gusty winds and the attendant turbulence which existed this night would have caused the rate of climb indicator and the turn and bank indicator to fluctuate to such an extent that an interpretation of these instruments so far as attitude control is concerned would have been difficult to a pilot as inexperienced as Peterson. The airspeed and altimeter alone would not have provided him with sufficient reference to maintain control of the pitch attitude. With his limited experience the pilot would tend to rely on the attitude gyro which is relatively stable under these conditions.

Service experience with the use of the attitude gyro has clearly indicated confusion among pilots during the transition period or when alternating between conventional and attitude gyros. Since Peterson had received his instrument training in aircraft equipped with the conventional type artificial horizon, and since this instrument and the attitude gyro are opposite in their pictorial display of the pitch attitude, it is probably that the reverse sensing would at times produce reverse control action. This is especially true of instrument flight conditions requiring a high degree of concentration or requiring multiple function, as would be the case when flying instrument conditions in turbulence without a copilot. The directional gyro was found caged and it is possible that it was never used during the short flight. However, this evidence is not conclusive. If the directional gyro were caged throughout the flight this could only have added to the pilot's confusion.


At night, with an overcast sky, snow falling, no definite horizon, and a proposed flight over a sparsely settled area with an absence of ground lights, a requirement for control of the aircraft solely by reference to flight instruments can be predicated with virtual certainty.

The Board concludes that pilot Peterson, when a short distance from the airport, was confronted with this situation. Because of fluctuation of the rate instruments caused by gusty winds he would have been forced to concentrate and rely greatly on the attitude gyro, an instrument with which he was not completely familiar. The pitch display of this instrument is the reverse of the instrument he was accustomed to; therefore, he could have become confused and thought that he was making a climbing turn when in reality he was making a descending turn. The fact that the aircraft struck the ground in a steep turn but with the nose lowered only slightly, indicates that some control was being effected at the time. The weather briefing supplied to the pilot was seriously inadequate in that it failed to even mention adverse flying conditions which should have been highlighted.

Probable Cause

The Board determines that he probably cause of this accident was the pilot's unwise decision to embark on a flight which would necessitate flying solely by instruments when he was not properly certificated or qualified to do so. Contributing factors were serious deficiencies in the weather briefing, and the pilot's unfamiliarity with the instrument which determines the attitude of the aircraft.

By the Civil Aeronautics Board: James R. Dupree/ Chan Gurney/Harmar D. Denny/ G. Joseph Minetti/ Louis J. Hector

Coronor’s Report

Coroner's investigation
Air crash, Feb. 3, 1959
 SW1/4 Section 18, Lincoln Twp.
Cerro Gordo County, Iowa

Jiles P. Richardson, Charles Holly, Richard Valenzuela and Roger A. Peterson, pilot of the plane were killed in the crash of a chartered airplane when it fell within minutes of takeoff from the Mason City Airport. The three passengers were members of a troupe of entertainers who appeared at the Surf Ballroom at Clear Lake, Iowa, the evening of February 2, 1959, bound for Fargo, N.D. and was headed northwest from the airport at the time of the crash in a stubble field, 51/2 miles north of Clear Lake, Iowa. The plane was discovered about 9:00 A.M., February 3, 1959, when Mr. H.J. Dwyer, owner of the crashed plane, made an aerial search because he had received no word from Peterson since his takeoff.

The wreckage had been approached only by Deputy Sheriff Bill McGill in his sheriff's car before I arrived about 11:15 A.M. At this time two sheriff's cars, two highway patrol cars and cars carrying members of the press, both reporters and photographers, and representatives of TV and radio stations and a few spectators were allowed to pass through the gate into the field where the crash occurred. Approach was made in a circuitous route to avoid disturbing wreckage and debris from the crash.

The wreckage lay about 1/2 mile west from the nearest north-south gravel road and the farmhomes of the Albert Juhl's and the Delbert Juhl's. The main part of the plane lay against the barbed wire fence at the north end of the stubble field in which it came to earth. It had skidded and/or rolled approximately 570 feet from point of impact directed northwesterly. The shape of the mass of wreckage approximated a ball with one wing sticking up diagonally from one side. The body of Roger Peterson was enclosed by wreckage with only the legs visible sticking upward. Richard Valenzuela's body was south, lying prone, head directed south 17 feet from the wreckage; Charles Holly's body, also in the prone position, was lying southwest, head directed southwest, 17 feet from the wreckage; and J.P. Richardson's body, lying partly prone and partly on the right side, was northwest of the wreckage, head directed south 40 feet from the wreckage, across the fence in a picked cornfield. Fine snow which fell lightly after the crash had drifted slightly about the bodies and wreckage. Some parts of each body had been frozen by ten hours' exposure in temperature reported to have been near 18 degrees during that time. The three bodies on the ground were removed before I left. Peterson's body was removed after permission was granted by the inspector for the Civil Aeronautics Board and Federal Aviation Agency. This was done by Deputy Sheriffs Wm. McGill and Lowell Sandquist using metal cutting tools to open a space in the wreckage.

At the scene of the crash Mr. Carroll Anderson was helpful in tentatively identifying the bodies from the clothing.

A large brown leather suitcase with one catch open lay near one leg of Charles Holly, and about 8ft. north of the same body lay a travel case with brown leather ends and sides of a light plaid color. This measured approximately 15 in. x 12 in. x 6 in.

A billfold containing the name of Tommy Douglas Allsup and a leather pocket case marked with the name, "Ritchie Valens" were brought to me at the scene by Deputy Sheriff inspecting the ground over which the wreckage had skidded and rolled.

Glen Kellogg of Clear Lake took some photos of the scene at the request of Sheriff Jerry Allen and me. News and TV photographers also took still pictures and movies of the scene.

The plane was a Beech-Craft Bonanza, No. N3794N, painted red, with white and black trim. Deputy Sheriff Lowell Sandquist, an experienced pilot, who has flown in and out of the Mason City airport, was present when the radio and navigational equipment from the plane were examined. He reports the radio to have been set for listening and talking to the Mason City Airport Station MCW, and the navigational equipment to have been correctly set for a course from Mason City to Fargo, N.D.

Arrangements for the flight were made by Mr. Carroll Anderson, Manager of the Surf Ballroom at Clear Lake, Iowa, with Mr. H.J. Dwyer, fixed base operator for the Mason City Airport. The reasons given to Mr. Anderson for the flight were that all three passengers wished to reach their next destination in their itinerary ahead of the chartered bus which carried the rest of the troupe in order to have some laundry done. Mr. Anderson drove the three passengers to the airport in his family automobile. Accompanying him were his wife and 8-year-old son. They saw the plane take off and make its circle to take up its course.

The Air Traffic Communication Center of the Federal Aviation Agency at the Mason City Municipal Airport. reported to me that at 0058 on February 3rd, the wind was south, gusty to 20 M.P.H., temperature 18 degrees F., dew point 11. In takeoff, the plane followed a normal procedure using the runway toward the south and turning in a counterclockwise direction. The amount of snow falling from midnight to 6:30 A.M. on February 3rd was listed as a trace.

Further information from them was that as the pilot taxied down the runway he communicated by radio with the tower and secured additional information about the weather en route. He told the officer in charge in the tower he would file a flight plan after getting in the air. When this information did not come in, the officer tried to reach the pilot without getting a reply.

An official investigation was carried on by a crew of field representatives headed by Mr. C.E. Stillwagon of the Civil Aeronautics Board, Bureau of Safety Investigation, 4825 Treost Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri, and Mr. A.J. Prokop, Federal Aviation Agency, Des Moines office. This group spent three days on the investigation arriving here the evening of February 3rd. They visited the scene of the crash for preliminary survey before dark that day.

I, Ralph E. Smiley, M.D., Acting Coroner of Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, on the 4th day of February, 1959 hereby certify that the above facts are made of record after diligent investigation and I believe them to be correct.


October 23 1964: Harold “David” Box

David Box was a Lubbock teenager who grew up a huge fan of Buddy Holly.  He and some friends assembled a sound-alike band called “The Ravens” and they cut some records.  When those recording fell into the hands of the surviving Crickets, they brought Box in as a new lead singer for the deceased Holly.  Box continued in music but he also had a passion was design, and studied in Connecticut under famed 20th century artist Norman Rockwell.  In 1964 Box went back to music, touring as a solo act mentored by Holly contemporary Roy Orbison.  He also hooked up with a Houston-based band, Buddy and the Kings – guitarist Buddy Groves bass player Carl Banks, and drummer Bill Daniels. On October 23 1964, the group rented a Cessna Skyhawk 172 and with 19-year-old pilot/drummer Daniels at the controls, flew to Houston for a gig then returned to Lubbock.  On the return flight the craft crashed, killing all on board.  CAB investigators never determined a cause of the crash.