In the early morning of February 3, 1959, a Beech Bonanza carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) crashed shortly after takeoff from the Mason City, Iowa airport, killing all on board. The accident entered aviation history and American popular culture.

In early 1959 Buddy Holly’s band was playing a “Winter Dance Tour” across the wintry upper Midwest. The travel logistics were less than ideal, involving long drives in an-ill equipped bus, in sub-freezing and sometimes sub-zero temperatures. Holly and Richardson were both ill, and Holly decided to charter a flight to the band’s next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota to avoid another lengthy road trip after playing the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on the night of February 2.

Arrangements for the flight were made with a flying service in nearby Mason City, which provided the four-seat Bonanza and pilot Roger Peterson. Peterson was not rated for instrument flight, but he received a weather briefing indicating that weather conditions en route were adequate for visual flight.

At 11:35 p.m. and 12:15 a.m. the weather service issued “Flash Advisories” reporting a band of snow showers moving into the area with low ceilings and visibilities below visual limits with freezing drizzle, snow and fog, neither of which was provided to Peterson.

The performers arrived at the Mason City airport after midnight, loaded their luggage and climbed into the plane. While taxiing for takeoff Peterson requested a weather update, and was advised that local conditions were 3 miles visibility (the minimum required for visual flight) in light snow, with 23 mph winds gusting to 35 mph.

They took off at 12:55 a.m. and turned northwest. The flying service owner watched the plane’s tail light for about five miles until it gradually disappeared in the darkness. Peterson did not radio the control tower to file his flight plan, and the tower was unable to reach him. The wreckage was found the next morning in a field about five miles from the airport under four inches of snow.

The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) accident report[1] found that the aircraft impacted the ground at high speed in a steep right bank, nose down attitude, and cartwheeled across the field, coming to rest against a fence. There was no evidence of fire or mechanical failure before the crash. The plane was properly equipped for instrument flight, although the trip could only have been made legally under visual conditions. The CAB report stated that it had an attitude instrument different from the conventional artificial horizon with which the pilot was familiar, but since the flight was to be accomplished visually, this instrument should not have been needed to control the plane.

The CAB concluded that shortly after takeoff Peterson entered an area of snow and complete darkness in which there was no visible horizon, forcing him to rely on the instruments to control the aircraft (including the attitude instrument whose display was opposite from the conventional instrument to which he was accustomed), causing him to become disoriented and lose control. It determined that the probable cause of the 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.” The CAB report also stated that “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.”

To all indications Peterson was careful, and tried to stay within his limitations. He obtained a complete weather briefing which indicated visual conditions all the way to his destination, and received an update as he taxied to the runway. He was never warned that he might encounter instrument conditions after takeoff.

What are the lessons of this accident?

While the reported weather was legal for the flight, it was marginal for Peterson, a non-instrument rated pilot flying at night, putting him and his passengers in jeopardy if he encountered instrument flight conditions. The flying service owner sent him off without the skills to cope with such conditions. But famous performers were eager to reach their destination. The owner and the pilot likely wanted to attempt the flight despite the adverse conditions. It would have been hard to say no. That can be the hardest duty in flying.

Don’t let the music die!

[1] The CAB investigated air accidents before the National Transportation Safety Board was established in 1967. The facts herein are taken from in the CAB Aircraft Accident Report Adopted September 15, 1959.