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Published On: Mon, Feb 3rd, 2014

This Day in History: Plane crash takes the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in 1959

Just a little past 1 am on Feb. 3, 1959, on a wintery night near Clear Lake, Iowa, a plane carrying three young rock n’ roll musicians crashed in an Iowa cornfield for what has been called, thanks to Don McLean’s “American Pie”–“The Day the Music Died”.

Image/VideoScreen Shot

Image/VideoScreen Shot

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died this night while touring the Midwest. Also killed was pilot Roger Peterson.

Time magazine writes of the scenario that occurred 55 years ago:

On February 2, 1959, Holly and his tourmates were on the eleventh night of their Winter Dance Party tour through the snow-covered Midwest. It was a Monday — a school night — but 1,100 teenagers crammed into Clear Lake, Iowa’s Surf Ballroom for two sold out shows. They wore blue jeans and saddle shoes and screamed for 17-year-old Richie Valens, whose single “Donna” was about to go gold. Between sets, Holly solicited people to join him on the charter airplane he’d hired to fly to the next show in Moorhead, Minnesota. The musicians had been traveling by bus for over a week and it had already broken down once. They were tired, they hadn’t been paid yet and all of their clothes were dirty. With the airplane, Holly could arrive early, do everyone’s laundry and catch up on some rest.

A 21-year-old pilot named Roger Peterson had agreed to take the singer to Fargo, North Dakota — the closest airport to Moorehead. A snowstorm was on its way and the young pilot was fatigued from a 17-hour workday, but he agreed to fly the rock star to his next gig because, hey, he would be flying Buddy Holly. The second show ended at midnight. The musicians packed up their instruments and finalized the flight arrangements. Holly’s bass player, Waylon Jennings, was scheduled to fly on the plane but gave his seat to the Big Bopper, who was suffering from a cold. Holly’s guitarist Tommy Allsup agreed to flip a coin with Richie Valens for the remaining seat. Valens won. The three musicians boarded the red and white single-engine Beech Bonanza around 12:30 on Feb. 3. Fans flocked to the tarmac, waving and crying and asking for autographs. The musicians waved back and then climbed onto the plane. Snow blew across the runway but the sky was clear. Peterson received clearance from the control tower, taxied down the runway and took off. He was never told of two weather advisories that warned of an oncoming blizzard.

The plane stayed in the sky for only a few minutes; no one is quite sure what went wrong. The best guess is that Peterson flew directly into the blizzard, lost visual reference and accidentally flew down instead of up. The four-passenger plane plowed into a nearby cornfield at over 170 mph, flipping over on itself and tossing the passengers into the air. Their bodies landed yards away from the wreckage and stayed there for ten hours as snowdrifts formed around them. Because of the weather, nobody could reach the crash site until the morning.

Buddy Holly was 22, Jiles P Richardson – known as the Big Bopper – 28, and Ritchie Valens, 17.

See the plane crash photographs and footage here 

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About the Author

- Stephen is a contributor and writer on The Dispatch. Stephen is the founder and editor for the Steven Spielberg Fan Club website and contributes to pop culture stories on The Dispatch, especially upcoming movie news. Beginning in 2016, Stephen took the role of Managing Editor for the Tampa Dispatch.

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