Musicians and Aircraft: A Bad Combination

Musicians may sometimes have their head in the clouds, but history shows that they probably ought to keep their feet on the ground, or at least on the tour bus. Musicians have had some horrible luck with aircraft. Here are the stories of some great musicians, spanning six decades of American music, whose planes went down even as their popularity went up.

Glenn Miller

After working his way up through a number of different musical groups, jazz trombonist Glenn Miller founded the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1939. The United States entered World War II at the peak of his career, and Miller decided he could best serve his countrymen in uniform by donning one of his own. But at 38 years old, he was older than most armed forces recruits. After being passed up by the Navy, he convinced an Army Brigadier General to let him enlist and "be placed in charge of a modernized army band."

Miller's civilian band played its last concert in September 1942, and he gave up his $20,000-a-week income to join the Army, quickly becoming a captain in the Army Specialist Corps. On December 15, 1944, he left England on a plane bound for Paris, where he was to make arrangements for a Christmas broadcast for American troops. His plane disappeared somewhere over the English Channel and was never recovered.

The day the music died

In January 1959, Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson began a three-week Midwest tour known as The Winter Dance Party. After wrapping up a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy Holly and two members of his band, Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings, had a chartered flight to the next gig. The Big Bopper, who was recovering from the flu and whose large frame didn't fit comfortably on the tour bus, asked Jennings for his seat on the plane; Jennings complied. Ritchie Valens had never flown in a small plane before and asked Allsup for his seat. They flipped a coin for it, and Valens won his spot on the four-seat plane.

Twenty-two-year-old Buddy Holly, 28-year old J.P. Richardson, 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, and 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson took off in light snow from the Mason City Airport on February 3, 1959. The plane came down in a cornfield eight miles northwest of the airfield, killing all on board.

Buddy Holly was one of the first people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Ritchie Valens was inducted in 2001.

Aaliyah

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was only 15 when her first album, Age Ain't Nothing but a Number, hit store shelves in 1994. Over the next six years, Aaliyah quickly made a name for herself in music with a string of chart-topping singles, starting with "If Your Girl Only Knew." She also began a promising film career, starring in the lead female role opposite Jet Li in 2000's Romeo Must Die and playing the title character in Queen of the Damned, which was released in 2002. She was also cast as the lead in Honey (recast to Jessica Alba) and as the supporting character Zee (recast to Nona Gaye) in the sequels to The Matrix.

But in August 2001, she and her band wrapped up filming for a music video in the Bahamas a day early. Eager to return home, they packed themselves and all of their gear into a twin-engine Cessna. Unfortunately, the weight of all the people and gear exceeded the safe flying weight of the plane, which crashed just beyond the runway, killing all aboard.

Other notable deaths by aircraft

The list of musicians who died in aircraft crashes is long. Here are a few more notable musicians who died too soon:

  • Patsy Cline: Died in a plane crash in 1963 on the way home from a benefit concert in Kansas City. She was 30 years old.
  • Otis Redding: His plane crashed in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1967, only three days after recording what would become his greatest hit, "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay." He was 26 years old.
  • Jim Croce: This "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" singer's plane went down after clipping a pecan tree at the end of the runway in Natchitoches, Louisiana, in 1973. He was 30 years old.
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd: In 1977, en route from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the plane carrying the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd went down oustide Gillsburg, Mississippi. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines, and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick all died in the crash. The other members survived, but all were badly injured.
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan: In 1990, after two shows in East Troy, Wisconsin, 35-year-old electric blues guitar god Stevie Ray Vaughan hopped into a helicopter bound for his home in Chicago. The pilot, unfamiliar with the flight pattern in the area, did not gain enough altitude to clear a nearby 200-foot hill and crashed the helicopter into it.