Buddy Holly plane crash : officials consider reopening 1959 probe

US transportation safety board reviewing a request to reopen the inquiry into 1959 crash that killed Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and pilot Roger Peterson

In the 56 years since the day Buddy Holly died, there has been no shortage of rumours, conspiracy theories, books, not to mention that song, about the plane crash that robbed rock’n’roll of one of its most promising stars one frigid February morning.

The official explanation for the crash on 3 February 1959 – that a relatively inexperienced pilot made mistakes in difficult, snowy conditions – has always seemed too mundane for many people to accept. That such a huge musical force, aged just 22, should have been silenced before he had barely started, together with Ritchie Valens, 17, of La Bamba fame, and JP Richardson, aka the Big Bopper, 28, surely demanded a more dramatic narrative than mere pilot error.

Hence the frenzied speculation concerning the discovery of a gun supposedly owned by Holly in the same Iowa cornfield where the mangled wreck of the Beechcraft Bonanza was found. Hence the unproven rumours that the pilot’s seat had a bullet hole through it, and that two chambers of the recovered pistol were empty.

Now the issue of what happened that cold midwestern morning looks set to be opened up all over again. Federal safety investigators have indicated that they are considering a request to re-examine the accident.

Buddy Holly plane crash
A group of men view of the wreckage of a Beechcraft Bonanza airplane in a snowy field outside of Clear Lake, Iowa, early February 1959. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The request came from LJ Coon, a pilot who has made his own investigation into the crash and has approached the National Transportation Safety Board’s cold case unit urging them to take another look. Coon believes that the finding of the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1959 that the accident was primarily caused by pilot error amounts to an injustice for Roger Peterson, the 21-year-old pilot who was at the controls of the Beechcraft Bonanza and who died alongside the three musicians.

Coon told the Pilot Tribune this year that “Roger would have flown out and about this airport at night, under multiple different conditions. He had to be very familiar with all directions of this airport in and out.”

The flight expert is encouraging federal investigators to consider other factors that could help explain the disaster. He points to a possible weight imbalance in the craft – Peterson and Holly upfront weighed about 160lbs each, while Valens and Richardson were considerably heavier – newly installed flight instruments, as well as a possible commotion among the passengers shortly after take-off.

Whatever comes out of this renewed spotlight on the accident, the tragedy is certain to continue to obsess Holly fans, imbued as it was with so many searing details. The plane went down just four minutes into its flight from Clear Lake, Iowa, en route for Fargo, North Dakota.

Holly, fresh out of his breakup with the Crickets, had teamed up with Valens, Richardson and the rest of their band and had been playing the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake as part of their midwestern “winter dance party” tour. Holly was fed up with the grim bus rides between tour stops and couldn’t face the bone-jangling journey to the next scheduled appearance in Moorhead, Minnesota, so arranged for the plane ride instead.

Other members of the band had chillingly narrow escapes. Waylon Jennings, playing bass on the tour, had given up his seat to Richardson who was sick and wanted to get speedily to a doctor. Tommy Allsup, on guitar, had tossed a coin with Valens for the final seat – Valens had won.

In 2007 the rumour-mongering around the crash prompted Richardson’s son Jay - the Big Bopper Jr, as he calls himself – to arrange for his father’s body to be exhumed and subjected to forensic testing. No indication of foul play was found.

On that occasion, the local Clear Lake paper, the Globe Gazette, predicted that the results of the examination “should end speculation”. How wrong they were.


Ed Pilkington in New York

The GuardianTramp

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