Rock n’ roll was here to stay and the “Winter Dance Party,” a tour featuring Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Frankie Sardo, Tommy Allsup, Carl Bunch, Ritchie Valens, Dion DiMucci and “The Big Bopper,” J.P. Richardson Jr., was heating up across the snowy Midwest. Things weren’t going so hot behind the scenes, however. The musicians’ route had been poorly designed, zigzagging them hundreds of miles a day in an exhausting effort to play 24 shows in as many days. Less than a week into the tour, the heating system on the bus broke, leaving Bunch hospitalized with frostbite. Richardson and Valens began coming down with flu-like symptoms, and the artists, whose moods had grown dark, dubbed the trip “The Tour from Hell.”
After playing a show in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly, cold and frustrated, had had enough and began looking for alternate transportation to the next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota. He reached out to Dwyer Flying Service at Mason City Municipal Airport. The owner, Jerry Dwyer, offered Holly and two others a flight in a 1947 V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza (N3794N) with 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson for $36 a person. Jennings was initially slated to fly but surrendered his seat to Richardson due to his failing health. Allsup and Valens tossed a coin for the third spot, which Valens won, though, not really.
Before heading out to the airport, Jennings teased Holly, saying in jest, “I hope your ol’ plane crashes!” Those words would later haunt him.
Shortly after midnight on Feb. 3, 1959, Holly, Valens and Richardson arrived at the airport, gathered their belongings and hurried along through the falling snow to Peterson’s plane. At approximately 12:55 a.m., they took off from runway 17 (now runway 18). Dwyer watched from below as the plane lifted into the dark, wintry night. Three minutes later, he saw something alarming: The plane’s tail lights entered into a descending turn and vanished from sight. He radioed to Peterson but received no response. At first light, Dwyer went airborne to retrace their planned route. He hoped to find nothing. Instead, in a cornfield less than 6 miles northwest of the airport, he spotted the wreckage. Debris had been scattered more than 500 feet across the field. The music, as they say, had died.
The Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), predecessor to the NTSB, determined the cause as pilot disorientation due to inclement weather. While Peterson had over 700 hours, 52 in instrument training, he had recently failed his IFR flight exam and wasn’t qualified to fly in IMC. At 11:55 p.m. the night of the crash, a weather briefer advised Peterson of 5,000-foot ceilings, 10-mile visibility, temperature of 15 degrees, dew point 8 degrees, altimeter setting of 29.90 and winds south 20 knots, gusting 32 knots. However, when he called again, less than an hour later, the ceiling had dropped to 3,000 feet, sky obscured, 6-mile visibility, light snow and lowered pressure of 29.85. Technically VFR, but conditions were obviously deteriorating. Plus, it was night.
CAB didn’t put all the blame on Peterson, however. According to the report, the briefers failed to advise him about worsening conditions along his route, as well as two critical National Weather Service “flash” advisories. This lack of information may have led him to underestimate the severity of the weather. Investigators believe he entered IMC shortly after takeoff and attempted to make an ascending turn to climb up and over the clouds. He mistakenly descended instead. The plane impacted the ground around 170 mph. The right wingtip hit first, sending the aircraft cartwheeling across the field for several hundred feet.
Are you an aviation enthusiast or pilot? Sign up for our newsletter, full of tips, reviews and more!
Not all were satisfied with the CAB’s findings. Two months later, a .22 caliber pistol, allegedly belonging to Holly, was found near the crash site. The discovery sparked rumors that an accidental discharge may have occurred onboard, leading to the crash. Many believed that Richardson, whose body had been found quite a bit further away than the others, had initially survived the incident and perhaps been the one shot. While the other bodies had been found either close by the wreckage or, in Peterson’s case, still inside the plane, Richardson’s body was located on a neighboring property on the other side of a fence.
By his son’s request, in 2007, Richardson’s body was exhumed and re-examined by world-renowned forensic anthropologist Dr. William Bass. Despite using the most sophisticated modern methods available, he found no evidence that bullet penetration had occurred. Additionally, he discovered that nearly every bone in Richardson’s body had been broken, leaving no doubts that he died on impact.
In 2015, retired pilot L.J. Coon prodded the NTSB to reopen the investigation. Coon hoped to clear Peterson’s name, believing that the aircraft had suffered a fuel system failure and possible malfunction of the right ruddervator. The initial investigation found no evidence of fire, and no fuel odors were noted in the report, giving weight to Coon’s theory. Regardless, the NTSB denied his request.
Pilots who have flown in such conditions, as the relatively inexperienced pilot Peterson did, know how snow flurries and dark of night can make for instant ICM. In an airplane that was heavily loaded and likely handling differently than it did when he usually flew it, the young pilot was no match for the sudden loss of visual reference and disorientation he encountered. To the investigators, there was really no mystery about this crash at all.
“I can’t remember if I cried, when I read about his widowed bride. Something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.” – Don McLean, “American Pie,” 1971
Holly’s mother, Ella Pauline Drake, and pregnant wife, Maria Elena, learned about his passing via a news report on TV. The trauma of learning about his death in such a way caused her deep psychological stress, and she later miscarried, and led law enforcement to enact a new policy forbidding the disclosure of victims’ names until families have first been notified.
The Winter Dance Party tour—or, more appropriately, the Tour from Hell—continued on for an additional two weeks. Jennings took Holly’s spot as lead singer, his final words to Holly still ringing through his head. As for Dwyer, the crash weighed heavily on him for the remainder of his life. He eventually established a college scholarship for music students in an attempt to make some good of the tragedy. The last of those directly connected to the crash, he passed recently at 85 years old—nearly the same as the combined age of all four men who died that fateful day.