Feds May Reinvestigate Buddy Holly’s Fatal 1959 Plane Crash

By: Alex Davies

Those born in recent decades may think of Buddy Holly as the guy from that super catchy Weezer song or the waiter Steve Buscemi played in Pulp Fiction. But for those who lived through the first generation of American rock and roll, Holly was a legend, and his early, violent death was tragic.

Holly, along with musicians Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and pilot Roger Peterson, were killed a plane crash on February 3, 1959. A federal investigation found that Peterson wasn’t qualified to fly the Beechcraft Bonanza and effectively closed the case when it released an official report the following September.

But the National Transportation Safety Board is considering a petition, filed by retired pilot L.J. Coon, to re-investigate the crash. Coon believes mechanical issues brought the plane down and that Petersen made a heroic effort to save those aboard. Should the feds take another look, any findings probably wouldn’t teach us much about aviation safety in the 21st century. But it could provide new insights into just went wrong, and perhaps answer questions long held by the folks who sob whenever they hear “American Pie.”

Petersen took off in dark, windy and snowy conditions, and was not instrument rated—meaning he was not certified to fly in weather that required relying solely on instrumentation. The Civil Aeronautics Board, the predecessor to the NTSB, found Peterson “could have become confused and thought he was making a climbing turn when in reality he was making a descending turn,” leading to the crash soon after takeoff.

That’s the “practical cause of the accident,” says former NTSB investigator Greg Feith, but the report skips over important issues that could have been involved. It does not consider the weight and balance of the plane—how it was loaded with passengers, baggage, and fuel, all of which could have influenced performance. It does not ask if the weather was so rough at the time of takeoff that it exceeded the capabilities of the plane. Nor does it question how fatigue and spacial disorientation in the air could have confused the pilot. (Feith notes the study of these human factors wasn’t well developed at the time.)

This wouldn’t be the first time the feds have taken a second look at an accident. The NTSB receives less than a dozen such petitions each year, and follows up on fewer than half of them, a spokesperson says. But it does occasionally change its findings.

After United Airlines Flight 585, a Boeing 737, crashed near Colorado Springs in 1991, killing all 25 aboard, a 21-month investigation failed to determine if the cause was “unusually severe atmospheric disturbance” during landing, or a malfunctioning rudder system. In 2001, it decided the rudder was to blame, based upon further investigation and evidence from two subsequent 737 incidents. The agency has revised other findings as well, when it had new, pertinent evidence to work with, or evidence the original investigation didn’t consider.

So it’s possible a fresh investigation would produce a more nuanced, if not substantially different, understanding of what killed Holly and the others. Coon wants the board to reconsider the weight and balance issue and consider whether there were problems with the rudder or icing in the carburetor, according to CNN. It’s not clear if Coon presented anything the board would consider new evidence it requires, and it be several weeks before it decides.

Even if approves Coon’s petition, there’s little reason to believe a new interpretation of the crash would improve safety in the 21st century. The NTSB’s mission is to investigate aviation accidents and issue recommendations (it has no regulatory authority) to make the industry safer. Discovering a problem with the rudder system on a plane that’s no longer in production, and addressing an issue that’s almost certainly moot after 56 years of advances in aviation safety, won’t do anyone much good. “I would be looking at, what’s the safety value for the flying public,” Feith says. “The safety benefit’s gone.”

1 Comment
  1. L J Coon 8 years ago

    Ref: ‘The Mason City Iowa accident 1959’
    The Reported Mason City Airport Weather February-3-1959 was…
    Measured Ceiling 3,000 – Sky Obscured – Visibility 6 miles – Temperature 18 degrees – Altimeter 29.86 – Wind Southwest 20 gust 30
    ” Not A Hollywood Snow Storm “.
    The Owner of N3794N and The FAA certified Tower Operator…Stood on a platform at the base of The Tower and witnessed
    The lights of N3794N “In A Slow Descent” less than 3 miles from The Mason City Airport, to the Northwest Visibility was reported as 6 miles
    Not A Hollywood Snow Storm.
    Remember…The Dwyer Flying Service was only certified by The FAA To fly VFR Chartered Flights ( Day and Night ) in 1959
    So…This Departure / Flight was a VFR night flight with FAA Tower reported VFR weather conditions / 6 miles visibility.
    Pilot Roger Peterson was VFR day and night rated ( 128 hours of flight) in N3794N and he had some Instrument time.
    This was Pilot Roger Peterson’s Home base facility/Airport.
    This was a VFR night flight ( ” Not A Hollywood Snow Storm ” )
    Pilot Roger Peterson…was in VFR night conditions for ‘ This Entire Flight ‘.

    The Flight of N3794N lasted 3.5 minutes from the point of departure, ( 800 AGL, with a 1 minute 6 seconds
    750 foot per minute ‘ Slow Descent ‘ ) coming to a rest at 4.9 miles from The Mason City Airport and 7 miles from
    The community lights of Fertile .
    ( Fertile with 397 people / residences in 1959 Home of the 32nd Governor of Iowa )

    The NTSB Petition includes but not limited to:
    Total Weight and Balance
    Fuel loaded
    Fuel gages
    Fuel amounts at wreckage site
    No mention of fuel period
    No mention of fuel danger for Investigators
    Outside temperature 18 degrees
    Who did the Weight and Balance
    Was the Weight and Balance done with the Late switch of new passengers ‘Valens and Richardson’.
    Who Fueled the aircraft
    Where is The Fuel receipt.
    Who Loaded and secured ‘The Baggage’.
    Location of Right Wing
    Passenger side (right side) Rudder Pedals ( were they removed for this Chartered Flight )
    Aircraft ‘Carburetor Induction Icing’ in 1959
    Did the Civil Aeronautics Board consider ‘Carburetor Induction Icing’ in this 1959 accident.
    How was The Carburetor Heat control/position found

    Addressed in The NTSB Petition but not limited to:
    a.Magneto switches were both in the “off” position.
    b.The attitude gyro indicator was stuck in a manner indicative of a 90-degree angle.
    c.The rate of climb indicator was stuck at 3,000-feet-per-minute descent.
    d.The airspeed indicator needle was stuck between 165-170 mph.
    e.The omni selector was positioned at 114.9, the frequency of the Mason City omni range.
    f.The course selector indicated a 360-degree course.
    “The fact that the aircraft struck the ground in a turn
    but with the nose lowered only slightly, indicates that
    some control was being effected at the time.”

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