You can read the Landmark Accident review based on the official accident report here. It ranks higher in my view than some other more recent celebrity landmark crashes such as JFK Jr., Ricky Nelson, or the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band.
Holly, one of the most promising musicians of that long-ago era—along with two others stars, the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) and Ritchie Valens—died in a small plane crash on a cold Iowa night in 1959. The Civil Aeronautics Board (the NTSB’s predecessor), after what was an exhaustive investigation for the time, determined that VFR commercial pilot Roger Peterson had succumbed to spatial disorientation on the short flight that literally lasted only minutes.
A gentleman with more than casual interest has petitioned the NTSB to reopen the case in the belief that he has found some additional evidence that will exonerate the pilot. It may be a bit of a stretch but to the NTSB’s credit they’ve agreed to take a look. If there’s any substance to the allegations then the case will be reopened.
Specifically, R.L. Coon believes that the 1947 V35 Bonanza may have been overweight and out of balance due to a last minute change in the passenger manifest. The Big Bopper was a big guy weighing in at 240 pounds and he was seated in the back of the Bonanza, which may not have been optimal. There was an estimated 60 pounds of luggage although its location is the subject of speculation.
The owner of the charter service and the aircraft, Jerry Dwyer, stored the wreckage hoping that someday the tragedy might be revisited. With more than a half century of improved forensics, who knows?
Every year, classic rock radio stations memorialize the crash on February 3, 1959, to pay tribute. Even if there are some new revelations many of the lessons remain. Despite Holly’s celebrity there was no place anyone had to be. But too many pilots and their passengers have been lost and will continue to be until we understand that trying to save a few hours is not worth the gamble of a lifetime. It’s determining the actual risk versus the perceived risk that’s so difficult to assess.
For all the armchair pundits, yours truly included, it’s way too easy to second guess. The flaw in our self-righteous Monday morning quarterbacking is that if the flight is successful, most of the time, nobody thinks anything of it. It’s only after a wreck that we come out of the woodwork to proclaim that it was obvious that the flight should never have taken place.
Good pilots recheck their assumptions and figure weather, fuel, and loading a bit more conservatively. They pay close attention to forecasts, the hardware, and their state of mind. It’s not just go versus no-go. On many flights it’s assessing every half hour or so whether the assumptions are still valid and if a dynamic situation may be edging toward a bad outcome.
The lessons of more than a half-century ago are just as valid today—even if a new investigation reveals anything different. Sadly, the bottom line on every fatal accident is irreversible, but there may be a small shred of comfort if the chain of events turns out to be less damning.