Remembering Buddy Holly

February 5, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

If you read the February AOPA Pilot, this month’s Landmark Accident was on the loss of Buddy Holly 50 years ago on February 3rd. He and two other rising stars( JP Richardson, aka The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens) of the new rock era died when a young VFR charter pilot launched into the dark Iowa night in the teeth of a strong cold front. You can read the details at The day the music died – The Buddy Holly crash-50 years later.

What’s of interest in how the world remembers this one loss. Almost every classic rock station was promoting Holly this past weekend. Since the article appeared several members have called and there have been many emails as many of you provided additional details. I was interviewed by National Public Radio as they noted the Holly phenomenon, What Went Wrong the Day the Music Died?

Sadly, as the rock stations were preparing to memorialize Holly, a Chicago flying club lost six of their own aboard a Piper Seneca that crashed in another snow squall in West Virginia this past week. The specifics are quite different and we’ll wait for more details but there appears to be a mission mentality that is common to both accidents. Both are high profile in different ways but at a time that we’re trying to recruit more people into GA, how do you think this registers in the minds of prospective pilots?

Do they say “No way!” or take time to study the incidents to learn so they don’t make the same mistakes? How should we, as pilots, explain to our friends? Should we discuss at all?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Tristan Jones

    Hi Bruce,

    I think it is very important that we discuss accidents such as the one you mentioned in Chicago with our non-pilot friends. In any activity, whether it be driving, sports, or any other activity that involves a certain amount of risk, there are always going to be people that push the limits.

    By explaining how these types of accidents could be avoided (in this case by being more prudent with the go/no-go decision), we will help others understand that it is not aviation itself that is any more risky that a number of other activities, but rather it is how each pilot approaches flying and how many risks they take.

    I’m not sure of the exact statistics surrounding accidents, but I feel that if you removed the ones involving fuel exhaustion, VFR into IMC and other “easily avoidable” situations, then there would be significantly fewer accidents to have to explain to people.

    Only by explaining the cause of an accident and how it could have been avoided/will be avoided in the future, will be be able to begin to convince non-pilots who see GA as exceptionally risky that the riskiness lies primarily in the attitudes of the PIC.

    I’d be more than happy to discuss this in more detail with you if you agree/disagree with any of these points.

    Safe flying,
    Tristan Jones

  • Bruce Landsberg


    Thanks much for your post. I think we pretty much agree. If you clicked on the NPR podcast link you’ll hear my response to Melissa is very much the same.

  • Dick Watson, AOPA 03650861

    I caught the NPR Interview the day it aired. Good job. Am I correct that current regs would not have let a Commercial VFR-only pilot make this night flight carrying passengers?

    I tell my groundpounding friends to consider the age/experience of the pilot when considering a GA flight. Old, vs. bold, pilots, etc.

  • W. Kimball

    I have followed the writings on the Holly accident and the one big thing that sticks in my mind in the attitude indicator. I personally know of two accidents in the USAF when the last transmission from the pilots was,”Am I upside down?” immediately followed by the big orange ball.

  • dick merrill


    the only thing missing from you excellent article is a photo of the Sperry gyro in question. One of my AVSIG friends posted a B & W photo of one but I am still confused about the display.

    Dick Merrill
    Chuckey, TN

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Dick W. & Dick M.,

    FAR 135.243(b) – PIC qualifications is the reg you want. Today, even for a VFR 135 operation, the PIC must be instrument rated.

    We are in search of a picture of the Sperry Gyro attitude indicator. My understanding, which may be in error, is that it worked much like Soviet fighter AIs. The “little airplane” moves, NOT the horizon behind it. Intuitively that make better sense but like Betamax sometimes the better idea isn’t the one that is adopted.

    In our business, standardization is a really good idea as evidenced by this accident

  • Susan M. Simmons


    When we’re having a snow or ice storm here in New England, the radio & TV advise citizens to stay off the roads. Perhaps they should add: “& out of the sky”.

    Reading your story of Buddy’s death, one can see the snowball growing – & it became an overpowering avalanche in the lives of that pilot & his passengers that fateful night. This isn’t Monday morning quarterbacking: the flight should never have begun & the tragedy should not have occurred.

    Susan Simmons
    Bristol, CT.

  • Mike Homan

    Really enjoyed the Holly story! I play in a band around Ohio called “Roscoe and his little green men”,which was started in the fifties. We play a few Buddy and Valen’s songs and wish they were still with us. It was interesting to read the details of their demise.

    Mike Homan
    Greenville, OH.

  • David B. Piccone

    Dear Bruce,
    As a Buddy Holly fan of many years and a novice guitar player, I was glad to see that you did the research and provided insight as to what may have contributed to the crash. I’m not sure if the pilot’s experience with the Sperry F3 gyro would have made any difference in the outcome of the flight….his plate was overflowing. After receiving my instrument ticket many years ago, I remember the examiner saying to me “stay out of heavy weather until you get some experience, it is the most challenging flying you’ll do”. Experience and wisdom are wonderful tools in your kitbag. I wish that pilot would have waited until frontal passage.
    Thanks for the great article and keep up the great work.
    David Piccone
    ATP DC-9/A-310/B767-757

  • Gennaro Avolio

    I was unaware of any civilian use of the space stabilized gyro untill reading your blog. In a previous geologic era, I flew an F-86A with a J-3 attitude gyro (space stabilized) and I can assure you tha using the so called “reverse gyro” presented no problems whatsoever, with only two conditionsto be met. Day & VMC. To make matters even more interesting the squadron also had F-86s with A-1 attitude gyros. The museum where I currently volunteer has a Mig-17 with the same type of (reverse) attitude gyro and the pilot who flys the Mig says the same thing. No problem when, day – VMC.
    Reading the blog did serve to remind me of how much things have changed in this field.

    Gennaro Avolio #04208041

  • Sally Reed Stirk

    Bruce, The article on Buddy Holly brought back painful memories for me. Because my father was killed the following month-March 1959. He was on a charter from Mansfield Ohio back home to Shelbyville IL. He too was in a snow storm. They found him 3 days later in Greencastle IN. My Dad was only 29. I wish I could find out what happened! I never could get flying out of system. I married a pilot, I have my private, and my son is flying 747s. Fly safe, Sally Stirk

  • Mick

    I could be wrong, but I remember hearing (or reading) that the original passenger manifest had Waylon Jennings in one of the rear seats. He (Jennings) traded places with Big Bopper due to the latter suffering with a head cold. If the pilot just counted heads instead of checking names, this would have resulted in a serious aft c.g. situation. (120 pounds vs. 240 pounds) If the aircraft had picked up any ice at all after take off, it would probabably have been uncontrollable regardless.
    Comments anyone?

  • Cary Alburn

    In the short time that the flight lasted, I doubt that ice played any part, but certainly the airplane was over gross and probably aft CG out of envelope–most of us know that number of seats does not equal passenger carrying capacity in almost every light single (other than maybe a C-182, maybe a very few others). But a Bo of that era with full tanks certainly would have been over gross and aft out of envelope–flyable, perhaps, but certainly not “hands off” stable.

    I also doubt that the variance in the type of AI made much difference–I’ve flown with both and it takes only a short while to transition from one to the other. It appears that it was a pilot qualified only as a VFR pilot (he’d failed his IR flight test) who lost it in poor vis, i.e., continuing into IMC–and again most of us know that the life span of such pilots is extraordinarily short, usually measured in less than 2 minutes. Having the best of instruments without the skill to use them won’t extend the life span much.

    I lost a friend a number of years ago who did the same thing, a VFR pilot who took off from CYS in light snow after dark, and got only a little farther than the flight in question.

    Bottom line is that if you’re going to fly into IMC, you and the airplane better be qualified.

    Sally, if you search the NTSB website, you will likely find your Dad’s accident report–all you need is the date and location. I understand your desire to know what happened–my Dad was killed in 1947 in a P51 that crashed near Hillsdale, WY, and for years I suffered through accusations made against him that he was “hot-dogging”–until I obtained the official US Army accident report just a few years ago, and found that he was the inexperienced innocent victim of an incompetent instructor.


  • Curtiss R. Aldrich


    Provacative article; good job. To split hairs, the F-3 gyro was standard equipment in the 1947 Bonanza with the optional ‘IFR’ panel. Also, the F-3 was installed as original equipment in various Cessnas such as the 170. As a CFII, I have seen few students who payed much attention to the sky pointer vs. the pictorial presentation of the aircraft itself. The F-3 was a non-tumbling gyro that was a second generation gyro after the AN-5736 type that was common to US aircraft in WWII, and most of us are familiar with in our Cessnas and Pipers.

    I own and fly a 1947 Bonanza that has been in my family for 25+ years. This Bonanza is not a ‘heavy handed’ machine such as the Cessna 210. It is very light and responsive on the pitch and roll axis in comparison. It also tends to have neutral static stability about its pitch axis at rearward CG(did you check to see if the plane had an auxillary 10 or 20 gallon fuselgae tank,. this was a popular aftermarket retrofit on these airplanes and added the weight directly under the rear seat). The airplane with the stock E-185 (basically an 0-470) will exceed Vno in level flight at high power settings and low density altitude. If the commerical pilot was flying at high power, aft cg, imc, he already had a high-workload environment. Add to that mild spatial disorientation, and the plane would have easily become unmanagable.

    Blue Skies,

    Curtiss R. Aldrich

  • Skip Rhudy

    Hi Bruce,

    Your story on AOPA about Buddy Holly contains the following line:

    “Sincerity, enthusiasm, and desire to please should never take a back seat to suspicious, skeptical contingency planning.”

    Did you mean that sincerity, enthusiasm, and desire to please should ALWAYS take a back seat to suspicious, skeptical, contingency planning?

    I think you did, but just thought I’d check. 😉

  • Alex Kovnat

    According to the article in the February 2009 edition of AOPA Pilot on the Buddy Holly – Richie Valens – “Big Bopper” (and, Roger Peterson too) tragedy, the autopilot on the accident aircraft was “recently installed but not operable”.

    One wonders if even a simple autopilot – a “wing leveler”, if you will – might have given R. Peterson a little time to sort things out. And would John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. along with his wife and sister in law, still be with us today if JFK Jr. had used the autopilot on his Saratoga instead of hand-flying in marginal nighttime VFR conditions?

    As a result of Mick (see above) pointing out that the accident aircraft may also have been suffering from CG being too far aft of the center of lift, I would like to pose another question: Would it be within reach of our present technology to equip aircraft with load sensors on the landing gear, to warn the pilot if the CG is too far forward or aft of the CL?

  • Sally Reed Stirk

    Cary, NTSB only goes back to 1962. Sally Stirk

  • Matt Bell

    After doing extensive research on the accident for a paper at the graduate level, I had concluded that the plane was overloaded and was tail heavy. The short duration of the flight lead me to believe that weather conditions were less of a problem as believed. In addition, the CAB investigation I believe was, at times, sloppy and inconsistent.
    Matt Bell

  • Caleb

    I have been told by several sources that the Buddy Holly accident – Beech Bonanza (N3794N) near Mason City, Iowa, lead to the creation of Part 135. I have not been able to find information to back this up. Is this true? Part 135 was created because of or influenced by the Buddy Holly accident?

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